Friday, December 29, 2017

The Loss at STLCC is a Loss for St. Louis

Two weeks ago, I got the devastating news that I would be among the 58 faculty members laid off from the community college where I work. I wrote this post at the time, saying I wasn't ready to talk about it in any concrete way. I'm a little more ready now. 


St. Louis Community College just lost 58 full-time faculty members. This means there will be fewer teachers, counselors, and librarians for the thousands of students who attend STLCC. This loss is tremendous for the individuals who were informed they would be laid off through the controversial Reduction in Force, but it is a loss that will be felt most keenly by the students that STLCC serves, students who by-and-large come from and will remain in the St. Louis region. The loss is all of ours, and the response should be, too.

I was one of the faculty members laid off last week. Half an hour before I was scheduled to meet my students for their final class period of the semester, I received a call scheduling a meeting to hear that my position was being eliminated.

The first person in my family to even attend college, I worked hard and rose through the ranks of academia to attain my PhD, and I knew early in my professional career that I would dedicate my life to teaching at-risk and vulnerable student populations. To me, it would be a testament to the teachers who had made a difference in my own life. These were teachers who saw through the statistics telling them that I, a child on food stamps in a single-parent household in rural Missouri, wouldn’t have much chance at academic success. Those teachers gave me every opportunity to succeed by providing challenging learning environments and an unwavering system of support. I knew that all students deserve exactly what I got: the chance to learn anything they want from teachers who believe they can do so. Before STLCC, I worked with low-income and underrepresented minority students through Upward Bound and the McNair Scholars Program. Through these experiences, I realized that my true calling was in the classroom.

In 2012, I started my career at STLCC as an English teacher specifically hired to teach developmental writing classes. I teach at the Forest Park campus, which serves one of the most diverse student populations in the state. I have worked with students who are homeless, students who were just released from prison, students whose families do not approve of their efforts to earn a degree, students who are going to college for the first time in their 60s, students who report never having read a whole book before, and students who graduated with high grades from their high schools.

At Forest Park, most students have to take developmental coursework. Some of them are returning to school for the first time in decades and need the courses to help refresh their skills and memories. Some of them were not adequately prepared in high school. Some of them are trying to turn over a new leaf after missing opportunities earlier in their educations. All of them come in with big dreams and hopes for the future. Developmental students are those who do not pass the entrance exams placing them in college-level classes. Before they can enter English 101, they have to take courses designed to fill the gaps in their education and provide preparation. Without this opportunity, these students would not be able to complete any degree.

During my layoff meeting, I was informed that there would be adjunct positions I could apply to in the future. In addition to being an incredible personal insult (with what would amount to a 70% reduction in my salary and complete elimination of my benefits), this is also a loss to the students. To be sure, adjunct faculty members serve an invaluable function in our educational system, working tirelessly for what often amounts to minimum wage pay to provide students quality courses. However, they do so without the stability, compensation, or institutional support that gives them access to all of the tools necessary.

As a full-time faculty member, I hold a minimum of thirteen office hours a week, time where I meet face-to-face with students to discuss their work, their goals, and their challenges. Adjunct faculty members are required to hold one such office hour per class, and the fact that they often have to work at multiple campuses to make a living means that their availability is often limited. Full-time faculty members are given professional development funds, funds that I have used to take additional training beyond my doctoral degree specifically geared toward teaching developmental students and toward conducting research in the field. I made developmental writing the focus of my doctoral research and completed a dissertation about the history and theory behind teaching these classes. Full-time faculty members also serve on committees across the district. I have worked to redesign curriculum, train incoming faculty members, and create programming for students outside of class.

An elimination of full-time faculty is more than an elimination of the jobs for the people who served in those roles. It is a systematic deconstruction of the support for our most vulnerable student populations. Chancellor Pittman’s previous position at Ivy Tech and his own strategic initiatives for STLCC point to a future that will rely heavily on online coursework and automated content. While this kind of education may sound efficient and cost-effective, this vision does not serve developmental students, thousands of whom come to STLCC specifically because of its open access admissions policy. Many of these students have nowhere else to go and cannot get their needs met with disconnected online classes.

Of the 58 positions cut, 14 were in English and 9 were in Reading, by far the hardest-hit disciplines, and two-thirds of the disciplines that serve developmental students. The teachers who were cut are among those who are the most passionate about and who have the most training and experience in developmental education. Falling enrollment numbers have been cited as the justification for these layoffs, but of 29 developmental writing courses offered at Forest Park this past fall, 13 of them were already staffed with adjunct faculty, and 12 more of them were staffed with faculty members who received layoff notices. It’s obvious that the students’ need for these classes already exceeded the resources given to meet them, but now those limited resources have been decimated to make way for administrative raises and flashy new building projects to house those administrators.

St. Louis Community College does not exist to provide cushy administrative positions (complete with housing and car allowances) on the taxpayers’ dime while the people who do the work of actually serving students are eliminated. It exists to provide opportunities for education to the people in our community—all of the people in our community.

The current vision for St. Louis Community College is orchestrated by a Chancellor and approved by a publicly-elected Board of Trustees who answer to us, the citizens of the districts served by STLCC. Our classes are full of our future nurses, chefs, police officers, small business owners, lab techs, and childcare providers. They are filled with the future of St. Louis. It is up to all of us to make sure that we communicate loudly and clearly to the Board of Trustees what kind of future we want to have.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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