Focusing on Wins: California Community College Leaders Reflect on Pandemic-Era Innovations

By Michal Kurlaender and Sherrie Reed

Students hanging out on campus

This blog post is the second in a series on the Wheelhouse Research Collaboration Council. The first blog post introduces the Research Collaboration Council and the third post reports on a zero textbook cost initiative.

In November 2023, Wheelhouse convened members of its Research Collaboration Council (RCC), bringing together 12 community college CEOs from a diverse set of colleges and college districts across California. Through this community of practice, college leaders engage in structured dialogue and share learning about post-pandemic efforts to improve student experiences and outcomes on their campuses.

Guided by a modified “step-back” consulting method that demands analysis of the root causes of problems of practice, the CEOs reflected on specific actions taken by their campuses to support staff and student engagement in post-pandemic recovery. They then identified the conditions for recovery (e.g., structures or systems, culture, policy, and funding) and the stakeholders that were engaged to contribute to success and to broader questions of sustainability. What emerged from these discussions were initiatives focused on instructional innovation, the expansion of student supports, the reinvigoration of institutional culture, and the changing of practices that hinder student success. Below, we highlight three examples of the 10 innovations detailed during the convening.

Compton College Farmers’ Market: Nourishing Students for Success

Launched in November 2022, the Compton College Farmers’ Market serves Compton College students and faculty as well as the greater Compton community in Los Angeles County and is designed to combat food insecurity. A partnership with Food Access Los Angeles (formerly SEE-LA), the program provides about 6,000 students a $20 voucher for the purchase of healthy food from local vendors; in the fall 2023 semester, over $210,000 was awarded. All students who are enrolled in at least one class are eligible and receive a voucher for the market; vendors submit vouchers and receive payment from Food Access LA.
This partnership follows a larger food insecurity effort launched by the college during the pandemic. Since February 14, 2021, students and employees at Compton can receive one free meal daily from the cafeteria. Dually enrolled high school and adult school students also participate. Multiple funding streams support the farmers’ market and daily meal program, including the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), Student Equity and Achievement dollars from the state, and the state Basic Needs grant. President/CEO of Compton College Keith Curry says the pandemic was a catalyst for addressing food access, one of the most fundamental needs of the campus community. While long-term sustainability of these programs is top of mind for Curry and Compton College, the Compton Community College District Board of Trustees will set aside $4 million to support Compton College Basic Needs Services in the future.

Reviving Organizational Culture at Merced College

At Merced College in the Central Valley, as at so many other institutions, one of the biggest casualties in the pandemic was organizational culture. “[The pandemic] eroded the best of people and the best of the organization,” says Superintendent/President Chris Vitelli. In response, Vitelli launched an employee well-being initiative that has been in place for a little over a year. The initiative aims to include well-being, happiness, and employee satisfaction and engagement in the college’s core values. Elements of this effort include the formation of a president’s advisory council, the hiring of a professional development coordinator, and the establishment of a Well-Being Institute. College employees enroll in at least one course on happiness, health, or nutrition, with most completing the entire program. Once a month, campus is also shut down for “Fri-Yays” to help employees connect through various social and community-building activities (e.g., “Sip and Paint,” softball tournaments, health and wellness clubs). Success is measured based on staff sentiment, Vitell said.

“[We] are measuring wellness through a pre- and post-assessment as part of the Institute and still need to measure with [an] employee engagement survey every other year, … but this year has felt a lot better than last year,” he said. “People are reporting their increased level of happiness and treating others with more respect.”

At the core of this effort is the goal to support staff through authentic praise and recognition and through professional development activities and resources to do their jobs well. Merced College is asking the question, How can students succeed if the staff they depend upon are not engaged and cared for?

Humanizing Curriculum and Instruction at Evergreen Valley College

At Evergreen Valley College (EVC) in San Jose, President Tammeil Gilkerson (now the chancellor of the Peralta Community College District) initiated an effort to introduce a more humanizing curriculum and instructional approach. With seed money from the State Chancellor’s Institutional Effectiveness Partnership Initiative (IEPI), her goal was to enable and inspire faculty to try new instructional practices tailored to the students they serve. President Gilkerson later invested HEERF dollars in the effort.

EVC’s deep commitment to racial equity intensified during the racial reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd and the surge of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic. The college created faculty cohorts to participate in professional development on humanizing curriculum and instruction, with 47 faculty participating in the first cohort and about 30 in the second. Professional development opportunities were layered, with a year-long commitment from faculty to participate. Training materials included modules from the USC Race and Equity Center. EVC is also now working with the Open for Anti-Racism (OFAR) program to guide faculty in the development and use of open educational resources (OER) and open pedagogy as tools for implementing anti-racist teaching practices and creating teaching materials. At the convening, President Gilkerson enumerated the factors critical to the success of this initiative, including funding to incentivize faculty participation, the timing of the racial reckoning during the pandemic as a catalyst for change, the alignment of professional development with implementation support, and the creation of cohorts.

Michal Kurlaender is the lead researcher of Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research and Chancellor’s Leadership Professor at the University of California, Davis. Sherrie Reed is the executive director of the California Education Lab at UC Davis.

The research reported here is part of a broader effort to document California Community Colleges’ recovery activities to inform community college leaders and state policymakers on best practices post-pandemic. This multi-year Wheelhouse and California Education Lab project, titled Evidence to Inform Improvement: Supporting California Community Colleges in Pandemic Recovery, is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences (Grant R305X220016) in a grant to the University of California, Davis and is part of the ARCC Network. Other partners include the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO), the Community College Research Center (CCRC), and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute, the U.S. Department of Education.


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