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Opportunity: Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC)

Author: Jane Hodges Young
June, 2014 Issue

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” —Benjamin Franklin


Mention Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) to just about anyone in the North Bay, and you’ll have a conversation starter. For 96 years, this venerable institution has woven itself into our diverse tapestry. Some will even argue that “The JC,” as it’s commonly referred to, is probably the most important educational institution north of the Golden Gate.
Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find any school with more tentacles that reach into the finest crevices of our community—making it the epitome of what a “community college” should be. Just don’t call it that—because it’s “The JC.”
“We’re almost 100 years old,” says Dr. Mary Kay Rudolph, vice president of academic affairs. “I’ve never seen a community where it doesn’t matter where you go, whether it be the gas station, the dry cleaner or a restaurant, that someone doesn’t have a connection with The JC. It’s truly an exceptional thing.”
And the name thing? “It’s iconic,” explains Dr. Jane Saldaña-Talley, vice president and head of SRJC’s Petaluma campus. “It’s not a term of diminishment, it’s a term of pride.”
Founded in 1918, SRJC is the 10th-oldest community college in the state. It was modeled as a “junior” version of UC Berkeley, which was the only public university in the state open to undergraduates at the time. It was intended to provide the first two years of an undergraduate education, preparing students to enter the UC system. To this day, it fulfills that goal, making it the first stop for many students who go on to pursue bachelors and advanced degrees elsewhere.
“We have a wonderful transfer program,” says Dr. Frank Chong, Santa Rosa Junior College superintendent and president. “Eighty percent of our students who apply to the UC system are accepted—and that’s third-highest [among community colleges] in the state.”

Education on steroids

What started as a small campus just north of the main downtown area of Santa Rosa has, over the years, morphed into somewhat of a behemoth. SRJC today has two campuses and three additional sites, including Shone Farm (a working farm), two libraries, two art galleries and a museum. It also conducts classes at local campuses like Cook Middle School and Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa, and at community-based organizations like La Luz in Sonoma. It’s one of the few colleges with a bonded winery and a world-class culinary arts facility with a full-service public restaurant that serves up some of the tastiest food to be found in restaurant-rich Wine Country (for a very reasonable price).
It has a competitive athletics program (Jason Verrett, who played for the SRJC Bear Cubs before transferring to Texas Christian University in 2010, was just selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers) and a nationally ranked speech team.
Currently, annual enrollment stands at a remarkable 43,000 students (including those enrolled in noncredit and community education programs). “Fifty-one percent of Sonoma County high school graduates enroll at SRJC the fall following their graduation, making it one of the most important educational institutions in the North Bay and Sonoma County,” says Chong.
The school offers 111 associate degrees (AA) and 143 certificate programs, roughly 25 percent more than offered by the majority of community colleges. And it has one of the largest scholarship programs, thanks to the legacy of the Frank Doyle Family, making it one of the largest trusts for any community college in the nation. “More than 177,000 students have attended SRJC on Doyle scholarships,” Chong says.
Basically, “we train the future workforce of Sonoma County, and we’ve been doing it for the last 96 years,” says Chong. “No one else does that. We focus on training North Bay students. We also provide access and opportunities for local people to get an education, not only at the beginning of their careers, but also at mid-career. About 30 percent of our students are over age 35 and are retraining for new work opportunities.”

Diverse offerings

Diversity is the name of the game when it comes to the multiplicity of degree and certificate offerings.
Over its history, the programs that have been most in demand—and have the highest number of certificates awarded—are public safety, child development, health programs (nursing and dental hygiene), culinary arts, automotive and agriculture.
The Public Safety Training Center, located in Windsor, was established in 1958. Over the years, it’s trained thousands of police and corrections officers, dispatchers, park rangers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters. In addition to administration and classroom buildings, it also has an emergency medical care laboratory facility, an indoor firing range, a scenario training village and a very cool driving instruction area that even has a skid pad.
The SRJC nursing program is highly sought after and currently offers enrollment only on a lottery basis. The future for this particular degree is quite bright, according to Chong. “For our health programs that require national exams, our students are always within the top 10 percent nationally, even against four-year colleges,” says Chong.
The culinary arts program, which moved to the new B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa two years ago, has 22,000 square feet filled with classrooms, four teaching kitchens, a public demonstration kitchen and a café and retail bakery open to the public. The student-run Culinary Café and Bakery is on the first floor and is open to the public Wednesday through Friday (bakery 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; café 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) while classes are in session. Oh, by the way, Café reservations are recommended! Students in the program learn both how to prepare and serve food professionally.
And while the state-of-the-art Green Music Center is the crown jewel at nearby Sonoma State, SRJC counters with its beautiful Warren G. Dutton Jr. Agricultural Pavilion. Completed in 2006, it’s located on 365 acres near the Russian River in Forestville. The Pavilion is located at the school’s Robert Shone Farm. Founded in 1972, the farm generates revenue from the sale of Shone Grown items such as wine, extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed beef, lamb, rabbit, chickens and organic beef jerky, as well as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Students take courses in viticulture, wine studies, equine studies, animal science, sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation. The farm also grows produce used by students in the culinary arts program.
While many of the degrees and certificate programs have long histories, SRJC is known for not sitting on its laurels. Keeping up with trends and changing North Bay employment demands means new programs.
Last fall, SRJC started a hospitality program that currently has three tracks: Guest Services Agent (hotels), Concierge for Sonoma County and Wine Tasting Service/Wine Sales. In spring 2015, a Front Office Management certificate will be added. The graduates of these programs are certified ambassadors for Sonoma County and receive a certified tourism ambassador (CTA) designation.
This fall, SRJC will start an entrepreneurship program to help students acquire the tools and skills needed to organize and plan their own business launches. It also will offer a new machine manufacturing program (a redesign of the previous machine tool technology program) and a networking program to teach students how to deconstruct “the hack,” for students who wish to join national cyber-crime security teams.

Going nowhere

While known for its programs and appreciated for its role in training people “to do everything that makes your community run,” says Chong, SRJC is also highly regarded for its faculty and administration, which has very low turnover.
“Our faculty members are exceptionally committed to the community and to the JC,” says Rudolph. “Some have taught here for 25 to 35 years, and that’s very unusual. As a result, we have a continuity of vision and quality.”
Case in point: there have only been five presidents in the history of the institution.
“When the headhunter contacted me about the position, he told me the job opens up about every 22 years,” Chong quips. “It’s like Halley’s Comet, so I figured I’d better get on board.” At the time, Chong was a deputy secretary for community colleges in the Obama Administration, but he says he missed the rhythms of being on a college campus: “I missed the interactions with students, faculty and community. And even though I relished service at the federal level, I felt my calling was on campus. It’s a wonderful place to work and there are very few reasons to leave.”
“I love this college,” Rudolph reveals. “One reason is that I have great respect for our board or trustees—they’re community leaders who volunteer to serve because they love the college. The give-and-take between the unions, senates, administration, president and board is also good,” she notes. “We work together. Even if we don’t agree, we find a way to work it out.”
A graying faculty and administration, however, can be a challenge. Over the last three years, about a third of SRJC’s 300 full-time faculty (there are also 1,100 adjunct faculty members) has retired or moved on.
“With about 100 new full-time faculty hires over the next few years, it’s potentially a huge culture shift,” says Rudolph. “We want to bring in people who have different ideas and will increase our diversity. And we plan to keep what makes us special—our quality and commitment to student success.”
Over the last 18 months, SRJC went through a strategic planning process that involved more than 400 faculty, staff, administrators, students, community partners and board trustees, she explains. “The plan is rolling out—we’re reaffirming what we believe and our value commitment to the community, students and each other. And we all helped craft it.”

Going forward

Being an integral part of a community, as SRJC is, also means you ride the economic waves with everyone else. And the recent recession took its toll.
Three years ago, when he arrived as the new president, Chong says, “we were in the depths of a recession. Budgets were slashed and we were cutting classes at a time when there was significant unemployment and student demand for enrollment was at a record.”
“Faculty and staff took salary cuts for three years,” comments Rudolph, “and we had to cut the schedule by 25 percent. That was hard on both students and faculty.”
But things are on the upswing, largely because of the passage of Proposition 30, a sales and income tax initiative to provide money for education in the state that passed in the November 2012 election. Unemployment is also down, which means enrollment demand is lower. “I’m actually looking for students now,” Chong says. “Overall, there’s been a big change in a mere three years. And it’s all for the better. I think we’re more properly resourced than we were when I arrived. Last year, we were able to restore around 500 of the courses we had to cut back. We’ve diversified our funding stream, expanded our federal and state grants, and increased the number of international students. Just like a business, we have to diversify our investments and our customers.”
Chong also says SRJC recently conducted a survey to poll voter support and interest in a bond measure to address infrastructure needs, technology upgrades and facility improvements, which the school would like to see on the ballot this November. In its history, SRJC has only put one general obligation bond on the ballot—the $251 million Measure A—which received voter approval in 2002 and paid for several new buildings and renovations that included expanding the Petaluma campus (see sidebar below), as well as new construction on the original Santa Rosa campus such as the Don Zumwalt Parking Pavilion, the Frank P. Doyle Library and media center, the B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center, the Lawrence A. Bertolini Student Center, and the Warren G. Dutton Jr. Agriculture Pavilion at Shone Farm.
Serving tens of thousands of students for close to 100 years can make for a lot of wear and tear and, as Chong points out, most of the original buildings were constructed in the 1930s, including the first—Pioneer Hall (1931)—on the original Santa Rosa campus. Throughout the SRJC district, buildings average 40 years old and are in need of replacement or, at a minimum, modernization.
“We truly appreciate all the community support and appreciation for The JC,” Chong says. And while he’s proud of its past and the way it’s changed the game in the North Bay, “It’s time for us to prepare this college for the next century,” he says.

Petaluma Campus

For about 50 of the 96 years it’s been in existence, Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) has provided educational programs not only in Santa Rosa, but also in Petaluma. Its mere presence near the border of Sonoma and Marin counties has extended the school’s ability to serve students in a wider geographic area than most community colleges, which are, by nature, considered to be “commuter colleges.”
Until 1995, according to Dr. Jane Saldaña-Talley, SRJC vice president in charge of the Petaluma campus, the college had no permanent facilities in that city. “We rented sites all over Petaluma. Our program was fairly limited because some of the facilities we rented were used by others during the day, so we largely offered evening classes. In 1979, we opened the Petaluma Center in its first fixed location, in several modular buildings on the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. That’s where we offered our first day classes, mostly technology education courses. But we had to shut them down during the fair because it used our parking lot for the kiddie rides,” she laughs in retrospect.
Things certainly have changed.
In 1986, SRJC’s Board of Trustees purchased a 40-acre site in east Petaluma on Sonoma Mountain Parkway and began a 10-year process of building a permanent campus, which opened in 1995. It was called SRJC’s Petaluma Center until it was officially designated as a campus in 1999.
“We anticipated fewer than 3,000 students would enroll and, when we opened, we had closer to 4,000,” Saldaña-Talley says. From the get-go, the Petaluma campus was crowded and in need of expansion. With the passage of the $251 million Measure A in 2002 and with state funding, SRJC’s Petaluma campus was able to triple the square footage of its facilities, adding a library, life science and physical science labs, an art studio, a physical fitness center, bookstore, student services area, dining area, classrooms, technology labs, faculty and administrative offices, a digital arts lab and an auditorium. Completed in 2008, the expanded campus can serve 12,000 students. Current enrollment is nearly 6,000.
Before the recent recession hit, “we had close to 7,000 students and enrollment was rising. But we had to reduce our class schedule by 25 to 30 percent,” Saldaña-Talley says. There are about 40 full-time faculty currently teaching in Petaluma, “plus another 250 to 300 adjunct professors,” she adds. There are also 100 permanent employees and managers on the campus.
SRJC-Petaluma is comprised of contemporary, adobe-style buildings that reflect the Spanish history of the area. Due to its narrow street front and elongated footprint, this 40-acre campus is quietly “nestled into the surrounding neighborhood,” Saldaña-Talley says. “The feel is really more like a small, liberal arts college. People know each other and it’s easy to navigate. Students who go here feel like they’re part of something—it’s a family atmosphere,” she explains.
Because of its prime location, “about 20 percent of the students are from outside Sonoma County, largely from Marin,” Saldaña-Talley says.
It’s attractive to Marin residents because it’s close to the Highway 101 corridor, Saldaña-Talley says, “plus SRJC has a rigorous and long history, offers the Doyle Scholarships and has a stellar reputation for academics. Students make choices about what works for them.”
What started as a night school has evolved into a comprehensive educational offering. “We have all the services that students would need and many of our students begin their education on the Petaluma campus and complete it there as well,” Saldaña-Talley says.

Serving Challenged Students

Fulfilling its role as a community college, Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) has taken major steps to ensure it leaves no one behind when it comes to receiving an education. Among its offerings are four very special programs that Ellen Maremont Silver, SRJC’s director of communication and marketing, refers to as not only game changers, but also “life changers for the participants.”
The bare descriptions here “don’t touch the power of these programs to help people who might fall between the cracks to building meaningful lives, thanks to the support they receive from SRJC faculty and staff,” she says.

Transfer students

“A four-year college or university is within reach for many of our students only because they can spend their first years at SRJC, an affordable, supportive institution,” Silver says. (The state-regulated $46 per credit fee at SRJC and other California community colleges is the lowest in the nation.) “For example, the student may not be able to afford a four-year school, may be a first-generation college student or may have limited English skills. Our excellent faculty members prepare them so well that, over and over, we hear that when they attend a top university like UC Berkeley, they’re better prepared than their peers who attended that school for their first years.”
Dr. Mary Kay Rudolph, vice president of SRJC’s academic affairs, agrees. “We’re not less expensive because we’re less rigorous. The average student at The JC who moves on to a four-year college finds his or her GPA (grade point average) actually goes up” because of the stellar instruction they received at SRJC.

Gateway to College

This program—a partnership between SRJC, Petaluma City Schools and the Gateway to College National Network in Portland—is for youth who have dropped out of high school or who are behind in credits they need to graduate.
In simple terms, it’s a “dual-enrollment dropout recovery program” that lets disadvantaged, high-promise students complete their educational goals. The California Department of Education approved Petaluma City Schools’ application for a charter school to create the Gateway to College Academy on the Petaluma Campus.  Currently, 78 high school students from throughout the Sonoma and Marin area are taking college credit courses to complete their high school diploma.  A total of 150 students are expected to be enrolled in the Gateway program in Fall 2014.
“By any estimate, it’s one of the most successful first-year programs in the nation, as it’s part of a national network. They’re looking to see what we’re doing because our retention and attendance is extraordinary and totally off-the-charts,” says Dr. Jane Saldaña-Talley, vice president and head of the Petaluma campus. The program is considered a model, and its team members have been asked to lead a regional directors’ convening during this summer’s Peer Learning Conference in Boston.
Students have to apply, must complete three essays, meet a minimum achievement standard and be interviewed by Gateway staff. During their first semester, they’re placed in small “learning communities” exclusively with other Gateway to College students and instructors, and they receive comprehensive services (job referrals, transportation, housing referrals, tutoring, health care and more). These services continue throughout the program to eliminate barriers that often interfere with students continuing toward their educational goals.
“In the end, they receive a high school diploma—not a GED—while they’re completing college courses. Our aim is for the program to reengage students with their educational goals so they can transform into the people they’ve always wanted to become,” she says.

Foster Youth Success Program

Based at the original Santa Rosa campus, this program supports former foster, kinship and foster-adopted youth, helping them succeed in college. The foster youth dropout rate in college is 65 percent nationwide. Much of the trauma foster youth endure includes the inability to attend high school regularly. Thus, when they arrive on a college campus, they need special support.
Currently, SRJC has more than 500 former foster, kinship and foster-adopted students on campus. A special Foster Youth Development Fund has been set up at SRJC to raise money to help create stability in these young people’s lives. “This works to increase their academic performance, leading to certificate completion, graduation or transfer to another college,” Silver says.

College to Career Program

One of the first of its kind in California, this program provides students with intellectual disabilities and/or autism with the opportunity to attend college and find work integrated in the community, in the career area of their choice. It’s funded by a grant from the California Department of Rehabilitation.
The program started in the fall of 2011 with 20 students. Each year, students take classes offered by the Disability Resources Department and with non-disabled peers in classes across all SRJC campuses. In May 2014, 16 students from the original cohort graduated from the three-year program and will transition into jobs in the career area of their choice, including journalism, viticulture, natural resource management, public safety, culinary, customer service, administrative support and information technology.


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