Abell Foundation study critical of academic progress at BCCC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore City Community College - which has the lowest graduation and transfer rates of any community college in the state - has made little academic progress over the past two years and failed to carry out recommendations that might have helped it improve, according to a new report.

The report, from the nonprofit Abell Foundation, outlines a litany of failure: Only 341 students graduated last year, 94 percent of entering students need remedial courses and nearly $700,000 has been spent on a computer program with no assessment of its effectiveness.

The report blamed the poor performance on the college's leadership and singled out the board of trustees. "The list of shortcomings continues," the report said. "But high in importance among them is that the BCCC Board of Trustees has failed to publicly and visibly respond with outrage to the bleak picture of student performance that has persisted at the college over the years."

Board members contacted by The Sun declined to comment.

President Sylvester E. McKay defended the college's progress and said the school's leadership was "committed to improving the institution."

In a telephone interview yesterday, he said that the school has improved over the past academic year, but part of that period was not included in the study. The college recently graduated 514 students, its highest total in years. "If that data was included," he said, "there would be a different picture."

Ann Ritter, president of the Faculty Senate, said instructors are uncertain the future. Rumors have been flying about a shake-up in the administration.

"Morale is low," she said.

The report is unlikely to reassure them. Entitled "Baltimore City Community College: A Long Way to Go," it was sent to college officials last week.

Only 10.1 percent of full-time students who enrolled at BCCC in 1999 have received a degree, certificate or transferred to a state public four-year college, the lowest such rate in the state, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. On average, 32.2 percent of the state's community college students receive degrees or transfer to Maryland public colleges.

By contrast, 38.9 percent of Anne Arundel Community College students transfer or graduate. Nearly 43 percent of Howard Community College students and 28.6 percent of students at the Community College of Baltimore County graduate or transfer.

The Abell Foundation first examined the college in 2002, discovered many of the flaws noted in the latest report, and offered recommendations along with help to carry them out.

The 2002 report suggested dropping some math requirements, strengthening tutoring and streamlining counseling and advisement programs.

The college, however, was beset by widespread turmoil - McKay became embroiled in spats with faculty who said he was too domineering. Later, he fired six top administrators. Reforms were overlooked.

BCCC's importance

BCCC, the latest report said, is vitally important to Baltimore. It is the city's largest provider of postsecondary education and will receive nearly $76 million from the state next year, about 70 percent of its budget. Maryland's other community colleges typically get a third of their budgets from the state.

More than a third of the city's college bound public high school graduates attend BCCC, according to the report.

The school, which has about 7,300 full and part-time students, has struggled to graduate them. At the 1993 commencement, 554 people received associate degrees or certificates from the school, compared with the 341 a decade later. .

In a November 2003 speech, McKay said: "There is a crisis at BCCC. ... The status quo is not working for the majority of our students."

The study notes that many students come to BCCC ill-prepared for academic requirements - almost 94 percent of the fall 2002 enrollees needed remedial courses.

"At no other community college in Maryland do nearly 100 percent of students arrive with remedial needs," the study said. "At BCCC, much of the remedial coursework entails starting from scratch - teaching students to read, write and compute for the first time."

The Board of Trustees, the report said, has not responded to the urgency of the situation.

Minutes of the 2002-2003 academic-year board meetings, show that the trustees did not have a single discussion on low rates of student success, even though Abell paid for a consultant to help institute change.

"Instead, board meetings focused largely on procedural issues such as approving the academic calendar and renewing employee contracts, or simply bringing the Board up to speed on issues the President and his staff deemed important," the report said.

The seven trustees are appointed by the governor. The president is James E. Harris Sr.

McKay and the trustees had a "complex" relationship, as the report described it, noting a December 2003 trustee decision to overturn some of McKay's personnel actions. In October 2003, nearly 60 faculty members sent a petition to the trustees, saying they were unhappy with McKay.

Many faculty members said that morale at the school is low and that there is confusion over authority.

"I don't know what's going to happen with the school," said Marilyn Corbeille, an English professor. "It's a shambles."

McKay said he has a good relationship with trustees and faculty. "I love being at the institution and working there," he said, adding that he plans on fulfilling his contract, which expires in July of next year.

Efforts to boost achievement have been poorly monitored, according to the study. In the summer and fall last year, the school spent nearly $700,000 on software, course materials and faculty training from a company called Academic Systems. The school also offered more tutors to students to help them learn basic skills.

The software was supposed to help students learn basic math and English skills but it was introduced in a haphazard way that proved ineffective. "A marketing effort never got off the ground; an evaluation plan was never executed; and a program coordinator was never hired," the report said.

'Moving forward'

McKay disagrees, saying the program has been a success and will help boost graduation rates because it allows students to go over materials two or three times. "If the study looked at recent data, it would demonstrate the college did respond to the study two years ago and that we are moving forward," he said.

Some students weren't so sure. Karen Brown, who graduated last week and hopes to transfer to the Johns Hopkins University or American University soon, said the computer classes were "dumbed-down."

She said that the computer program was difficult to use, and students were unable to load the software onto their home computers. But the classes were so easy that it didn't matter, said Brown, 39, of Bolton Hill.

"If you took a lot those people who graduated and gave them a basic math or English exam, they wouldn't pass it," she said.

Sun staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this article.

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