South Side students face long commutes as Chicago City Colleges consolidate programs

Jonathan Talley and Lavada Kimble at Kennedy-King College’s spring commencement exercises in May. (Photo by Kenyon Douglass/ Courtesy of Jonathan Talley)

By Branden Hampton

Jonathan Talley, a recent graduate of Kennedy-King College and former president of the Student Government Association, said that his education at Kennedy-King marked his second attempt at college and the coursework and professors at Kennedy-King prepared him for the next stages of his academic career.

Talley received his associate’s degree in Applied Sciences with an emphasis in political science and plans to transfer to Roosevelt University. He eventually wants to pursue law school to become a lawyer.

Despite this success story and many more like it, City Colleges is consolidating programs at Kennedy-King College, in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side. But the school will now specialize in culinary arts and hospitality. Dental hygiene and nursing have already been cut there and are now being offered at Malcolm-X College, located on Chicago’s West Side.

“I do feel like they’re marginalizing students on the South Side to just be cooks. That’s not what everybody wants to do. It almost feels like segregation in a way. You’re saying we can only do these types of jobs and that’s not true at all,” Talley said.

Other programs reportedly on the cutting block at Kennedy-King include business, public policing, child development, media communications and more, according to Talley.

“Why would you deny people on the South Side that opportunity to fulfill their dream as a businessman or businesswoman? Maybe they do want to go into culinary, but maybe they don’t want to cook for the rest of their lives. They may want to go into culinary and own their own business,” Talley added.

But for him and others, the big question is why students on the South Side will be forced to commute long distances to pursue classes in other professions that Kennedy-King offered before City Colleges decided to officially consolidate programs in 2014.

During the fall of 2015, several student government association members from all seven of the City Colleges of Chicago were invited to a luncheon with Chancellor Cheryl Hyman at district offices to discuss the closure and movement of academic programs at some schools.

“We had a meeting with the chancellor. We voiced our opinion. Long story short, the chancellor said it still stands,” said Talley. “Other SGAs were not for the consolidation. We all stood on one united front saying we don’t think classes should be moved from any community college to make one college a specialization for one career. We voiced that.”

According to Crain’s Chicago Business, Hyman’s contract expires at the end of this month and is not expected to be renewed though she may remain with City Colleges until a successor is named.

The City Colleges’ plans have sparked controversy because of fears that students, especially minority students, will lose access to academic programs in their communities and end up with long commute times to new campuses.

Students on the South Side will be impacted more by the consolidation of programs due to the long commute times via public transportation to schools on the North Side.

For example, a Kennedy-King student wanting to take information technology classes at Wilbur-Wright College, on the Northwest Side, would have to take a train and two buses with a travel time of nearly two hours.

To address the transportation challenge, City Colleges of Chicago created a free City Colleges shuttle that helps boost linkages between the different colleges and CTA rail lines, according to an email statement from Katheryn Hayes, a City Colleges spokeswoman.

An emblem displaying portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy are part of Kennedy-King’s school entry monument. (Photo by Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

Kennedy-King College was originally named Woodrow Wilson Junior College in 1935 and was renamed in 1969 in honor of the late president John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King in 1969, a year after both were assassinated.

The consolidation of programs are part of the City Colleges’ “reinvention initiative,” which aims to improve academic offerings and better prepare students to secure jobs or transfer to four-year institutions, according to a press release from City Colleges.

The first consolidation involved nursing programs in 2014, which eliminated programs at four community colleges and consolidated one citywide program at Truman College. The nursing program will move again to the new Malcolm X campus, which has a focus on health care, later this year.

According to a press release from City Colleges, the focus areas of the seven City Colleges are: Culinary and Hospitality at Kennedy-King College; Transportation, Distribution and Logistics at Olive-Harvey College; Healthcare at Malcolm X College; Business, Professional Services and Entrepreneurship at Harold Washington College; Information Technology at Wilbur Wright College; Advanced Manufacturing at Daley College; and Education, Human and Natural Sciences at Truman College.

Hayes also said that the child development program at City Colleges will not be fully consolidated until January 2018 in order to allow current child development students the opportunity to finish their child development coursework at their current college. She also noted that each college will continue to offer general education courses that prepare students to earn an associate degree and transfer to a four year college or university.

City Colleges of Chicago Location By Race Interactive Map

City Colleges are mostly located in black and Latino communities. The plans to consolidate and move programs will have the most impact on students of color who will need long commuting times to attend many professional programs consolidated at City Colleges outside their neighborhoods. The population groups shown dominate these areas, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

In a November 2015 complaint sent to the Higher Learning Commission (which grants accreditation to post-secondary institutions in the region), the faculty council of City Colleges criticized the decision to consolidate programs without faculty, student and community input into the impact of the move.

Below is the document sent to the Higher Learning Commission by the Faculty Council of the City Colleges of Chicago.

Recently in March 2016, teachers and faculty said that they were not able to get the City Colleges’ response to the HLC complaint directly so they had to FOIA, using the Freedom of Information Act, to get Chancellor Hyman’s response.

Below is the document of the Chancellor’s response to the HLC complaint.

Henry Miller, a recent Kennedy-King graduate and former vice president of Kennedy-King’s SGA, said that it seems like City Colleges are taking away careers that deal with four-year colleges like writing, journalism and business and leaving the associate level degree jobs at Kennedy-King. Other City Colleges on the South Side affected by the consolidation of programs include Daley College, focusing on manufacturing, and Olive-Harvey College, focusing on transportation and related fields.

“I honestly don’t think it’s fair. I’m against the whole reinvention program. I think since it’s a whole system for City Colleges that they should all be on one accord rather than saying, ‘You can’t do this here and you can only do that here.’ That’s not really fair for the students,” Miller said.

Miller graduated from Kennedy-King along with Talley in May 2016 and received an associate’s degree with an emphasis in accounting. He said that he’s been accepted to the University of Illinois at Chicago and also looking at Roosevelt University to complete his undergraduate studies as an accounting major.

Henry Miller promotes the Kennedy-King College Student Government Association. (Photo by Jonathan Talley/Courtesy of Henry Miller)

Miller said that one of his darkest moments during his time at Kennedy-King is a little more “unconventional than most students” since he was home-schooled from first grade until 12th grade.The hardest thing for me was the transition that first semester. Going from home school to an actual public school with other students and what not.”

“I was really nervous and I didn’t know what to expect. I had like a general knowledge, but how is it going to be? Are the professors going to be hard? Am I going to get good grades? But luckily it wasn’t that hard. The professors weren’t easy, but they would work with you,” Miller added. He also said that he ended up earning a 3.82 grade point average his first semester at Kennedy-King.

Miller cited the strong and supportive professors at Kennedy-King as reasons for his success. “The professors are amazing and they really try to help you succeed.”

Teachers Make A Difference

Talley said that his dream is to become a judge and his professor at Kennedy-King inspired him to pursue a legal career.

“My professor Ted Williams made a profound statement to me one day. He said the political process really affects everybody whether you like it or not. You get up and brush your teeth with toothpaste. Somebody has to regulate the toothpaste to say it’s okay to use. Somebody has to regulate all food,” Talley said. “When I took his class it really made me look at things differently.”

Ted Williams III is chairman of the social science department at Kennedy-King and has been teaching there for 12 years. Williams cited positive and negative aspects of the City Colleges’ reinvention initiative.

“There have been good things about reinvention in terms of the focus on graduation and college to careers. They definitely made some traction in the area of connecting students with real job skills. The problem is that much of education in America now is leaning toward the corporate model,” Williams said.

Williams also said that the corporate model seems to focus more on the kinds of skills that will get students further in the vocational workspace, but less on “skills that are critical to being a citizen.” He mentioned that he considers critical thinking and exposure to humanities and the arts among those skills.

It is still not clear when general classes in social sciences will be consolidated to another school from Kennedy-King. However, Williams mentioned that faculty is consolidated along with programs that move to other campuses. For example, he said that hopefully there are enough classes at Malcolm X since the entire dental hygiene faculty from Kennedy-King had to relocate there.

“I understand why reinvention has to happen because in many ways a lot of students weren’t completing and they weren’t graduating. That’s a very important piece. But, I can say that there has been some down sides to it as well,” Williams said.

Williams said that City Colleges has to be able to offer a variety of courses and programs at different schools. “If you don’t, then what you’re doing is only setting up certain communities to serve food and other communities to say get involved in higher level healthcare administration. They have to be very careful about that. If that comes out of it, that can be a real problem also,” Williams said.

The Kennedy-King College digital marquee located in the Englewood community. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

Is Corporate Interest Playing a Factor in The Reinvention Initiative?

Whole Foods Market is slated to open in the Englewood Community sometime in the fall and some students wonder is this one reason Kennedy-King is specializing in culinary and hospitality.

The Washburne Culinary Institute, headquartered on Kennedy-King’s campus and The French Pastry School, also part of Kennedy-King College, but located in the heart of downtown Chicago, offer students the opportunity to take classes and pursue careers in culinary arts and hospitality.

When you have these high powered corporations like Whole Foods coming into a neighborhood, the goal it seems right now is to impress. We gotta impress,” Talley said.

Talley said that City Colleges is playing a game of “impressions.”It’s not a game of let’s actually do what students need for us to do. It’s a game for: ‘Who can look good? Who can make us look good? That’s where we’re going to go.’ Sometimes that’s not always best for the students.”

Did the reinvention initiative have a negative impact on Kennedy-King’s enrollment? According to data from the Illinois Community College Board, Kennedy-King has had a 35.8 percent drop in enrollment from fall 2011–2015, which was the lowest decline in enrollment among all of the seven City Colleges of Chicago.

Comparison of the final fall 2011–2014 opening enrollment with fall 2015 preliminary opening enrollment. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

The reinvention initiative was incepted in 2010 and the first official consolidation of programs was nursing in 2014. There are still other important factors to take into consideration for Kennedy-King’s decline in enrollment including state budget, lack of student interest in programs and more.

Hayes defended the reinvention initiative and noted its positive impacts. “Since the launch of reinvention, City Colleges has more than doubled its graduation rate and has more than doubled the number of degrees awarded annually to the highest number on record at City Colleges.” Hayes also noted that the reinvention initiative has increased the number of adult education students advancing to college credit work by 171 percent.

According to a statement on City Colleges’ website, adult education is a comprehensive program of free classes for adult students who need to improve their basic literacy skills, obtain a GED certificate or prepare for the Citizenship exam.

Lack of Communication with Teachers and Students

Henry Miller and drama club president Amanda May pose for a picture in an office at Kennedy-King College. (Photo by Shirley Dobie/Courtesy of Henry Miller)

What’s the biggest obstacle facing students at Kennedy-King College? In Talley’s opinion, the biggest obstacle is registering for the correct classes students need to transfer to a four-year college.

“What I found out was that when I transfer to Roosevelt, some of the classes that we have to take are freshman classes that we should’ve been taking at Kennedy-King. Now we have to go into Roosevelt and double back to play catch up to what we actually are supposed to be,” Talley said.

Talley mentioned that his fiancé is also transferring to Roosevelt and the two biology classes she is taking at Kennedy-King aren’t compatible with the biology classes needed at Roosevelt.

“A lot of students face that problem because Kennedy-King doesn’t offer a lot of the classes that you need for your prerequisites or you need for your general education,” Talley said. “If a lot of students could come into a four-year university and be at a legitimate junior status, then I think that would help a lot of students.”

Teachers and students at City Colleges have been complaining at past board meetings about the ability to collaborate with college advisors to advise students and also transparent communication with faculty and staff when it comes to major academic decisions affecting both students and teachers.

Talley said that the advisors at Kennedy-King should collaborate with teachers so that students can have better knowledge of what courses are needed to pursue a program at a particular school.

Teachers ultimately teach the classes. If a teacher says they’re teaching Math 140 and they collaborate with the advisors, they can say, ‘Oh let’s see if that class can transfer to a four-year university that the school partners with.’ Maybe they’ll find out that Math 140 only transfers to UIC, Roosevelt and DePaul,” Talley said.

Miller said that his math professor told him about certain math courses he would need to take in order to transfer to UIC’s business program.

“She really had a lot of insight about classes that I should take and how they related to my major, which was accounting,” Miller said. “She was telling me that I would need Calculus I. I think she knew someone at UIC and she knew what the school was asking for.”

Miller said advisors sometimes don’t really know where students are going and don’t know the specific transfer requirements for each college or university that students are interested in.

Talley said that he always tells students to do their own research. “Look up what degree you’re trying to do. We have a website called ‘Transferology’ you can go to see if classes will transfer.”

City Colleges of Chicago flags fly at its headquarters in downtown Chicago. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

Student Success and Moving Forward

Williams cited the numerous success stories of students he has taught at Kennedy-King College including one student who had no exposure to international politics.

I taught an international politics class and I inspired her to apply for a fellowship to the White House, which she became a finalist for. She went to study international relations at George Washington University and came back and finished at Chicago State. Started a non-for profit and traveled overseas,” Williams said.

Williams said that most of the faculty he knows at Kennedy-King goes above and beyond because the students require it. “I know that at City Colleges it’s not just about academic success. For some of these students there participation at City Colleges is an issue of life and death.”

We had a homeless student this semester. A group of [teachers] had to buy him clothes, help him take a shower and those types of things. Get him a job interview. Those are the things that we do,” Williams said. “It’s very hard when you work with people who don’t necessarily see that and sort of look at what we do from strictly a number’s perspective.”

In the future at Kennedy-King and other community colleges in Chicago, Talley said that he wants to see “more community involvement and more sensitivity toward students such as keeping classes at the school and making courses accessible.”

You shouldn’t have to go to Malcolm X because you want to take nursing classes. You should be able to take all classes at any City College and be able to transfer to a four-year university and have no problems,” Talley said.

Miller said, “It’s a tremendous mistake and it’s going to really disadvantage students. It’s going to really drop enrollment. Already Kennedy-King has a lowered enrollment and [the reinvention initiative] is going to drop it some more.”

Williams said that he would like to see a streamlining of the bureaucracy that makes it difficult for faculty to go above and beyond in their work and also a “true-shared governance” in certain ways. “I would like to see those who work with the students at the table when you have real significant decisions that have a large scale impact on many people’s lives and their ability to get to school.”