When she first attended City College of San Francisco (CCSF) in 2002, Shanell Williams, who had just come out of the foster care and drug court system, says she wasn’t fully prepared to succeed academically. She ended up dropping out of school to work full time and to get her own place.
Eight years later, Williams returned to CCSF. She joined the Guardian Scholars program, which supports students who have been in foster care, majored in urban studies and got involved in student government, becoming president of the student council at Ocean Campus and the student trustee. Next year, she plans to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley or to Stanford University.
“It’s completely changed my life,” Williams said about CCSF. “I wouldn’t have a real pathway without it. As someone who went to a continuation school, I didn’t really get all the normal high school requirements and with City College, I was able to come back after working for many years.”
CCSF has been a welcoming place for her, Williams says, and she wants to make sure the school is there for other working-class students. So on July 9, she joined hundreds of protestors in front of the Department of Education in downtown San Francisco. They were asking the department to reverse the decision of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) to revoke CCSF’s accreditation on July 31, 2014.
The ACCJC put CCSF, the largest community college in the state with 85,000 students, on its most severe sanction, “show cause,” last July, giving the college until March to work on 14 recommendations, many having to do with finances and governance. In a July 3 letter to CCSF Interim Chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman, ACCJC President Barbara Beno said the school had not fully addressed them. The college plans to appeal the decision.
Rafael Mandelman, one of the seven trustees on CCSF’s board, said he and others had put in thousands of hours working to meet the standards and had been commended by the visiting team on their efforts.
“It was stunning,” Mandelman said about the decision. “I couldn’t believe [that despite] what the folks at City College had done, [ACCJC] still decided to revoke accreditation. If you look at the visitors’ report, over and over they say what great progress we made. ”
Jennifer Aries, a communication consultant for CCSF, says progress has been made — but there’s still more to do.
“When things build up over 20 years, it’s hard to get them all done in one year,” she said. “I think we’ve just got to focus on meeting the standards so that we can maintain the accreditation and keep the doors open for the city and county of San Francisco.”
California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris has appointed Bob Agrella as “special trustee with extraordinary powers,” effectively stripping the elected trustees of their authority. Agrella joined the board last year as special trustee with advisory powers after the school was put on “show cause.”
Mandelman called ACCJC’s decision “outrageous and undemocratic,” but a special trustee is the only viable option to keep the school accredited, says Paul Feist, spokesman for the state community college system.
“The most important thing we need to focus on is getting behind Dr. Agrella to complete the actions that need to be done to bring the college into full compliance,” Feist said. “It’s doable, and it’s really the only way the college will remain open for the long haul.”
The changes at the college since the “show cause” report have been drastic, Williams said, with reorganization of departments, cuts to student services, classes, and faculty salaries, as well as layoffs of part-time counselors.
“We’re moving toward a city college that isn’t geared toward someone like me — we’re losing diversity on all levels,” Williams said. “We’ve been about helping low-income people and those who are vulnerable, and now we’re moving towards more of a business model.”
Tarik Farrar, the chair of African-American studies at CCSF, says the ACCJC faulted the college for intentionally putting students first, when instructors voluntarily took salary reductions and cut administrators.
“How in the hell did we keep that school afloat during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression when we lost $50 million in state funds?” he asked. “We did the best anyone could do under those circumstances.”
Farrar adds the ACCJC had no criticisms of CCSF’s educational quality. CCSF successfully prepares students for four-year universities, Farrar says, with training programs that include radiology, nursing, fire fighting, culinary arts, auto mechanics and green technology.
The California Federation of Teachers, along with the CCSF faculty union, American Federation of Teachers, Local 2121, filed a nearly 300-page complaint against the accreditation commission, charging them with conflict of interest (Beno’s husband was on the team that evaluated CCSF), violating federal and state regulations and interfering with collective bargaining. Critics also charge the ACCJC with being overzealous and issuing far more sanctions than other regional commissions.
“The ACCJC is out of control,” Mandelman said. “They’re arbitrary, nontransparent, arrogant and irresponsible. There’s no check on them, and no one to rein them in. For an entity charged with enforcing accountability, they seem to be totally unaccountable.”
Farrar calls the commission’s decision on CCSF “atrocious.”
“Someone has got to ask the question, ‘How can anything be better if they close down that school?’” he said.
It would be devastating for San Franciscans if CCCSF, the largest workforce trainer and provider of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in the city, closed, said three members of San Francisco Board of Supervisors at the protest.
Sara Diaz, a student who came out to protest the ACCJC’s decision, got her high school diploma at CCSF. She says the school changed her life, and she’s now going on to get a degree in accounting.
“I feel more confident,” she said. “I feel I can meet my goals.”
Williams says with student loan debt rising, it’s particularly important to have options other than private schools.
“Students like me, where else do we go?” she asked. “I don’t want to go to the University of Phoenix and take out a loan and get a substandard education. We deserve good, affordable education.”