Chinese Americans’ High Stakes in Future of SF City College

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By New America Media‘s Anna Challet

SAN FRANCISCO — Among the embattled City College of San Francisco’s most vocal supporters is the Chinese community, which recently celebrated the opening of a Chinatown-North Beach campus. But with a looming budget crisis and warnings of a loss of accreditation, the $138 million campus’s salability is frequently mentioned as one way the college could save itself.

The Chinese community’s stake in the survival of City College has steadily increased in recent years, with the most recent available statistics showing overall Asian-Pacific Islander enrollment at 42 percent of the college’s student population. But necessary reforms to address financial concerns could include closing some of the college’s 11 campuses throughout the city, and the new Chinatown campus – the result of a near four-decade long effort — could be a target.

“We’re all going to hurt,” says community leader Henry Der. “The cuts, if they need to be made, should be equitable. No one community should bear a disproportionate share of the pain.”

Der points out that City College provides Chinatown residents with “survival courses” offering the tools necessary to live and work in San Francisco, such as free English language classes. But under the current financial crisis, such non-degree bearing classes are becoming harder to justify.

To open the new campus, the Chinatown community had to overcome a facilities budget shortfall of $800,000; this was achieved by a fundraising campaign spearheaded by the Friends of Educational Opportunities in Chinatown (of which Der is a co-chair). The campaign was able to cover the shortfall with donations from residents of Chinatown and the Richmond District, often referred to as the city’s second Chinatown, as well as $400,000 in matching funds contributed by Lillie Wong, aunt of City College trustee Lawrence Wong.

The Accreditation Commission of Junior and Community Colleges has given CCSF until October 15 to show “just cause” for remaining open, and until March 15 to address administrative and financial concerns. If the college were to lose its accreditation, it would also lose state funding.

At the campus’s opening celebration on Sept. 21, Mayor Ed Lee announced his endorsement of San Francisco’s Proposition A, the November 6 ballot measure that would create a $79 tax per year for San Francisco residential and commercial properties for the next eight years. This would raise approximately $15 million annually.

Along with state Proposition 30, which would authorize a temporary tax increase to provide revenue for K-14 schools, Prop. A would alleviate some of the school’s financial troubles. If Prop. 30 fails, the college could lose another $11.5 million in state funding. It has already lost close to $20 million in budget cuts in the past year alone, and has had to cut 700 classes this semester.

“As Asian Americans, we not only have to help pass Prop. A, but we have a responsibility to our community,” argues Alex Tom, the Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association. “CCSF is nearly 50 percent Asian [students]. Thousands rely on CCSF for job training, ESL, and a stable future.”
Tom says his group plans to work with Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Friends of Educational Opportunities in Chinatown on educational outreach and press events regarding Proposition A. The CPA will be calling thousands of voters in Chinatown between now and November 6.

Until the opening of the new campus, City College classes offered at Chinatown educational sites had been, according to Der, “strewn across store fronts” – adults were taking courses in elementary schools, and the campus facility on Filbert Street was inadequate.

Given the high demand for classes, Der is dubious about suggestions proposing to merge the Chinatown campus and another, older downtown campus.

As to concerns over the tracking of learning outcomes, one of fourteen deficiencies cited by the accreditation commission, Der agrees more work needs to be done with the college’s administration to gather data on the learning outcomes of students in non-credit courses, like language classes.

He also thinks there would be a proliferation of credit courses at the new Chinatown campus, which will serve at least 6,500 students. Non-credit courses require more students in order to generate the same amount of income as credit courses.

Der’s passion to save the new campus stems in part from his family’s own experience with the school. His mother was an ESL citizenship student at CCSF, and his daughter was able to complete courses that she hadn’t taken as an undergraduate student that allowed for her acceptance into a physician’s assistant program. “My family is forever indebted to City College,” notes Der. “My story is the story of virtually every family in San Francisco.”

It’s a theme that Tom was quick to get behind.

“For the Chinese community and other immigrant communities, education is key to our future in the United States,” Tom says. “Education via job training, ESL, [and] citizenship classes is one of the most effective ways to lift low-income people out of poverty.”

As an example, he points to a partnership with Chinese for Affirmative Action and City College called the Restaurant Worker Career Ladder Program, which trains low-wage workers in Chinatown and places them in stable employment in the hospitality industry.

“This has changed the lives of so many families. This is why the Chinatown campus [is] such an important issue that cuts across our whole community.”

The bottom line, says Der, is that the community won’t allow the new campus to close. “We are not going to let them shut this down.”

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