By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Chemistry professor Martin Wallace has seen chemistry enrollment increase by 94 percent over the past five years, although there is still only one full-time chemistry instructor at Lake Tahoe Community College.
Alex Mellon can’t believe it, but he actually misses doing homework for chemistry class. Homework assignments helped him learn the material, says the 36-year-old student who once made his living as a photographer and even taught photo classes at the college.
His chemistry professor, Martin Wallace, has seen chemistry enrollment increase by 94 percent over the past five years, although there is still only one full-time chemistry instructor. So homework went by the wayside. His classes now pack 70 or more students into a room.
“My grading is up 75 percent; off-hour e-mail questions are up 75 percent; and students dropping by during my office hours are up by 75 percent over the past few years,” says Wallace, a member of the Lake Tahoe Community College Faculty Association (LTCCFA). “Everything requires a lot more time these days.”
Layoffs and cuts have left faculty and students at the small community college reeling, says LTCCFA President Scott Lukas. Last spring, 25 part-time educators lost their jobs, resulting in about 100 class sections being cut. Many students can’t enroll in the classes they need to graduate. Mellon, for example, would like to fulfill his pre-nursing requirements and transfer to another college to receive his RN degree, but finds himself at a standstill.
“I need to take chemistry, anatomy and physiology,” he says. “There used to be a lot of night classes, but they are gone.”
Class sections are reduced, but enrollment is at an all-time high due to the poor economy and job layoffs, says Lukas, an anthropology professor. Many who have lost their jobs in the tourist industry have sought retraining at the college in hopes of starting new careers.
But even students who complete their prerequisites can’t transfer. Sarah Smith, 30, was not accepted as a transfer student at several colleges she applied to, even with a 3.74 GPA. For now, the single parent continues to take classes at the community college so she won’t stay stagnant, and hopes that doing so will increase her chances of transfer acceptance.
“Students who can’t get into the CSU system want to go to community colleges, but we’ve eliminated 10 percent of classes this year,” says Ron Norton Reel, president of the Community College Association. “And because of the economy and layoffs, we have more students seeking retraining at community colleges.”
The cutbacks at Lake Tahoe have disproportionately hurt minority students, says Sal Lopez, who teaches English as a Second Language at the college. English learners can no longer find tutors. Ethnic studies classes he taught were eliminated, although they are still listed in the catalog. Because the area lacks an adult education program, many students without high school diplomas have relied on the college’s non-college-credit courses to fill the void. But those, too, have been cut.
“I think we’ve made a giant step backwards,” says Lopez. “Things were already bad for certain segments of the student population before the cutbacks happened.”
A disproportionate number of physical education classes have been eliminated. Tahoe is a community known for its recreation services, and many students chose to attend the college to take PE, says Mike Spina, a faculty member whose PE classes were eliminated.
The Disability Resource Center lost 48 percent of its funding from Sacramento. Last quarter, all of the center’s tutors were let go, although a few were hired back part time. The center also lost the part-time learning disabilities specialist who had been testing students for more than 20 years, the classified person at the front desk, and the “alternate media specialist” who helped match special-needs students with resources, such as Braille for blind students.
Beth Marinelli-Laster, the learning disabilities specialist, now runs constantly back and forth between the front desk and her office because there’s no longer a receptionist. “We care a lot about the students and are trying very hard to meet their needs, but everyone is starting to get burned out as they try to do more with less,” she says.
The library is open fewer hours and closed Saturdays, which hurts students who check out textbooks or use computers there because they can’t afford to buy their own. “The staff is starting to feel strained,” says library director Lisa Foley. The library now receives 50 percent less to purchase new books and has lost funding for all database subscriptions, which students need for online research.
The campus cafeteria is no longer open. A local Thai restaurant is scheduled to take it over, but students and staff say it will be difficult to exist on only Thai food.
“Losing the cafeteria is a big deal for me,” says Joe Stanton, a third-year student who hopes to transfer to UC Davis. “I’m here all day long.”
Esta Lewin says that the counseling staff has been cut and that Early Alert, an intervention program for students at risk of failing classes, was eliminated. Despite high unemployment in the rural area, there’s no money for the annual career and job fair, so that’s been canceled, too.
“I think we’re all being affected by the dire news,” says the counselor. “We have a constant stream of dire news, so how could we not be worried? And how could this worry not trickle down to students?”
Mellon, the student who misses homework, is plenty worried.
“I worry quality teachers will be driven out of the profession by what’s happening here,” he says. “And I also worry that future generations will be deprived of a quality education.”