October 5, 2007

Southwestern’s New Steel

By Steve Padilla

The new Superintendent/President of Southwestern College is a man who knows where he is going. Recently sitting comfortably at the home of a constituent in eastern Chula Vista, Dr. Raj Chopra displayed a quiet confidence and engaging ear while surrounded by a small gathering of residents and community activists.

The conversation wandered as they often do at these gatherings, but remained within the boundaries expected for the occasion. What are the challenges ahead as you see them? What will be the growth in students and how will they be accommodated? What are the physical changes underway on the campus of this important and familiar centerpiece in eastern Chula Vista? What are your ideas about access and funding, helping students get to University or enter a trade? One important focus was on understanding and working with diverse communities and Hispanic students in particular. And so it went throughout the evening.

On occasion, a questioner would become a speaker, delivering suggestions for programs and approaches, and covering issues important but not on topic. The good Doctor would take it in, then politely but firmly correct course, expressing appreciation for a good idea while stating that other items needed to come first. He would not do that now; he would focus on his priorities.

At 70, and with 33 years of experience as an education executive, Chopra is unconventional in more than one way. He has never worked for a community college, having spent his career in primary and secondary education. Most of his prior career was spent in districts lacking in diversity and many of the unique challenges faced in communities of color or poverty. When given the opportunity in a more diverse district, he delivered. He has stated Southwestern is from where he will ultimately retire.

His age, experience and successes provide him a kind of freedom. His most recent record while in Phoenix, Arizona, speaks for itself. Drop out rates in decline, student achievement and graduation rates on the rise. All those years of experience and at his age, he has the luxury of a certain frankness and focus without as much regard to the politics which often accompany his job. He displayed what I would call understated internal steel, which I found refreshing.

Southwestern College is an important bridge to higher education for so many that otherwise would never have it. Its presence in our community has helped many prepare for university and beyond. Its student body includes many Hispanic students who are yet to achieve the performance levels or gain entry to higher education at the same rate as their non-Hispanic peers. It is much more than just a physical place at the center of a large city, it is central to our success as a community.

Now two months into the job, the challenges are many. Community colleges continue to be the stepchild of higher education when it comes to financial support, despite having the most difficult job in education – giving instruction and preparation to everyone who seeks it.

Community colleges in California have often received well below the national average in per student funding. The colleges in San Diego County have been below the statewide average. Within San Diego County, Southwestern College has been at rock bottom. The differences in funding rates add up to lost millions over time. The debate has raged for years and this past April a statewide ballot measure on community college funding qualified for the February 2008 ballot. The measure would set minimum funding rates for community colleges, and lower student fees.

But the University systems of California who seek resources from the same pot are already looking at the idea with a wary eye. Get ready for the battle of the college systems, complete with misleading television spots. Meanwhile student populations are on the rise.

The Census Bureau released encouraging news at the end of August. It concerns the Hispanic population nationwide, from whose ranks come many of Southwestern’s students.

The poverty rate among Hispanics has dropped by a third since 1994 despite increases in the Hispanic population nationwide. In the same 12 years, Hispanic household income rose 20%. What was a major factor? Increased education. Between 1994 and 2005 the number of Hispanics graduating from High School and enrolling in college rose sharply.

The importance of community colleges succeeding can not be exaggerated, not just because of their value to Hispanics, but also to the improvement of all students and the entire community. With so much occurring, so many needs to be met, the battles over funding and crowded campuses, Dr. Chopra will need our support – and lots of that steel.

Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: spadilla@aquariusgroup.org

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