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California community colleges look to save money by banning repeat classes


The Sacramento Bee, May 7, 2012

Mweluke Kyumba was the most dapper student at American River Collegeon Friday afternoon, donning a black vest and tie over his satin blue shirt while other students welcomed the sunny weather with shorts and tees.

It was a sign of just how seriously Kyumba, 22, takes his ballroom dancing class. At first, it was just a recreational course, but after his fourth time around, dancing has become his life, he says.

There are few subject areas at community colleges where students can repeat classes, but many do so with arts and physical education courses under the mantra that practice makes perfect.

That soon could change.

The California Community Colleges Board of Governors will take its first look today at a proposal to prohibit students from repeating a course in any subject area unless they fail to earn a satisfactory grade. If ultimately approved, the change would take effect in fall 2013.

In the wake of state budget cuts, community college leaders say the system no longer can afford to provide a heavily subsidized outlet for artistic or physical activity. Community colleges have lost 12 percent of their annual state funding, by far their main source of revenue, since 2008-09.

"In times of scarcity, we have to realize we can't do that anymore," said California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott. "It's far more important for someone to take a chemistry course than for someone to take golf for the third time."

The idea, Scott says, is that community college districts have funding for a limited number of seats. If students can't repeat arts and physical education classes, colleges in theory could open up more seats for English, math and other academic courses that result in degrees.

State data from the 2009-10 school year show that students took 875,927 classes for a second time, 305,331 classes for a third time and 117,420 classes for a fourth time. The data do not reflect how many repeats were due to a student failing vs. taking a course again for personal enrichment.

Under current rules, students can't repeat an academic course unless they get an unsatisfactory grade. They're allowed to take a recreational class up to four times.

Many functions served

As the name implies, community collegeshave come to serve multiple functions beyond preparing students for a job or four-year degree. They provide learning opportunities for the simply curious, refresher courses for professionals and gateways to new hobbies.

Kyumba's class has become a training ground for upstart ballroom dancers. Many students have bonded through repeat sessions, practicing after hours and meeting up at Sacramento dance spots.

"In this class, you build on the skills over time," Kyumba said. "I mean, it would be great if you could learn it after one time and be done. But I don't think that's possible, to grasp everything related to the course."

Instructor Paul Zimny sees all types. Young students who need a pinch of social confidence, retirees, working adults.

"A lot of them, this is how they keep it all going," Zimny said. "What they'd pay for two (private) group classes would cover a whole semester here."

Physical education courses such as ballroom dancing, tennis and swimming typically equal one unit, which costs $36 this semester and will rise to $46 starting this summer. That buys a weekly three-hour class over four months.

By comparison, Zimny says he charges $60 to $65 for one hour of private instruction at the Ballroom of Sacramento.

Michele Rudek, a Sacramento landscape architect taking ballroom dancing for the second time, said the proposed rule change would render the class "almost useless."

"Dance is something that you have to continue practicing," she said. "It's rote memory, so if you don't continue practicing, you lose it."

Scott said he appreciates the value of such skills but that taxpayers can't afford to subsidize recreational lessons offered elsewhere.

For someone taking tennis lessons at a community college, Scott said, "Their alternative is to go to a tennis club somewhere and pay a fee. Our job is not to furnish the cheapest form of recreation."

Plan allows some repeats

Under the proposed rule change, only a small number of students would be allowed to repeat a course after one successful completion. Those include intercollegiate athletes who need conditioning or weight training,and students majoring in performing arts who are required to participate in an ensemble every semester.

The rule would apply retroactively, so students who previously completed a course could not sign up for the same one starting in fall 2013, with exceptions granted to long-ago graduates who need to refresh a skill to pursue a new degree.

The proposed change alarms Karen Saginor, president of the Academic Senate at City College of San Francisco. She warned that it would hurt the state's poorest residents, who cannot afford the private options Scott mentioned.

"Wealthy people, middle-class people, will get it somewhere else," Saginor said. "But people at the bottom end of the spectrum won't have other options."

College officials are looking at other changes as well.

One would be to move popular courses into fee-based "community services" divisions that have grown at some community college districts. There, students and teachers use public facilities but pay a higher fee than the system's $46 per unit cost.

Such offerings are rare in the Los Rios Community College District in the Sacramento region, but have proliferated elsewhere. College of Marin, for example, offered a four-week swing dance course for $55, more expensive than a regular community college class but cheaper than many private lessons.

At Cosumnes River College, theater arts professor Kale Braden said his department has considered splitting general courses into a series of more focused ones to show that students are learning different skills each semester.

For instance, he typically has repeat students and new students together in one stage construction class, with the veterans working as crew chiefs. Under the new policy, if students aren't majoring in theater arts, they wouldn't be able to take the course a second time. One idea may be to break the class into beginner and advanced levels.

"In some ways, it's kind of frustrating that we have to go back and explain what we're doing," Braden said. "But on the other hand, the state of California gives us a lot of resources to do our jobs. If the taxpayers need a better explanation of what we're doing with their money, I can't fault that."