Green Acres?

Yesterday while I was in Sacramento I had coffee with Jessie Ryan of the Campaign for College Opportunity.  She is plugged into many causes and groups, one a consortium of community colleges and state universities in California’s Central Valley, an agricultural region characterized by low college participation, and home to many of the populations we most want to reach.

We also talked about the new Student Success Task Force under way at the California Community Colleges.  I’d heard about this from two of my counterparts in their system office, Barry Russell and Erik Skinner.  Since to the community colleges, “transfer” is an important synonym for “success,” their project feels like a natural fit for our work to reform the CSU’s GE transfer curriculum.  Presumably, whatever engages and retains our students will also work for theirs.

From what Jessie told me, the Task Force started with a lot of energy, coming in part from the high hopes of Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges.  He’s about to retire and looking to spend his considerable political capital on something worthwhile and daring before he goes — like changing the whole culture by moving to funding on completion, instead of third-week enrollment.

You can see the Task Force minutes on line.  Since its beginning last fall, the group has had two lame meetings followed by one that was okay.  Jesse thinks Jack’s getting itchy.  She told me they’ve had visitors come in and share ideas, and thinks they’d welcome the same from me.

On the flight back and forth I was rereading the nine pilot-site proposals that emerged from the “Making GE Relevant” meeting in San Francisco in January, part of “Give Students a Compass.”  This coming week two groups will meet and decide on which of the nine to authorize first.   Supporting them all would take around a million dollars over three years, of which I’ve raised half.  I’m in touch with a couple of other foundations, and confident I could raise the rest, and probably more.

None of the pilot proposals came from the Central Valley.

So I’m looking at a fairly ambitious project already, but also realizing it may be able to grow quickly on three fronts:

California Community Colleges, if they agree that reforming the GE transfer curriculum might serve their ends as well as ours.  Already on the Compass steering committee we have the two leaders of their statewide faculty senate, one of their best articulation officers, and two administrators from their system office.  But Jack’s a different category.

Jessie’s Central Valley group, if I can persuade them there’s really a place in this project for colleges and universities away from the well-heeled and better-educated cities along the coast.  One of the project’s main objectives is gap-closing, so there’s certainly room.  They just need to see themselves in the picture.

Grantmakers, who’ve already expressed enough interest and would probably like to involve those other two groups.

Next steps if we were to go this route:

1.  Meet with the leadership committees next week, and pick the frontrunner pilots.  I’ve had friends prereading the submissions, and I think there are four or five that could start right away.  We would tell them so, and we’d bring in our project manager from San Jose to run them from my office.  All that we do immediately, no matter what.

2.  Tell my bosses.  An expansion to more than just the original sites — one that adds to the money, community college muscle, and geographic reach — would be big enough to warrant some publicity and get the Compass Project into more daylight.  This is scary because, like certain moulds, it’s been flourishing in obscurity.  They could look at it and say no.  (Start the revolution from inside the system office?  Do these look like insurgents?!)

3.  Network.  A yes from parties in my office would trigger a couple of barnstorming visits, one to the Central Valley and the other to the CCC student success Task Force in Sacramento.  I would also need to reconnect with my first two funders and let them know the scope might change, and give the same message to prospective sugar daddies and mommies.

4.  Float a proper RFP.  I don’t think it was clear enough to those who signed up for the meeting in January — let alone those who didn’t — that one of the door prizes would be participation in a three-year GE project.  In other words, for those four or five proposals that our committees deem “not ready for prime time,” the best answer may not be “not yet.”  It may instead be an invitation to propose again, as part of a process we’d open to the whole state, once the networking in Step 3 is done.  We would encourage them to apply, but also shake the trees and lettuce fields of parts inland.

Finally, I’m haunted a bit by advice from friend Jean Mach at San Mateo:  support those who try.  It takes more than a year or two to get a normal course firing on all its cylinders, and these pilots aren’t normal.  They’re integrative, engaging, innovative, and hard.  As I tell funders it may go bigger, I should probably also start admitting it might take longer.


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