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Community Colleges Closing the Racial Opportunity Gap?




By Dr. Rowena M. Tomaneng, Berkeley City College President

How can community colleges work effectively and successfully with students coming from the most marginalized communities in the region, many of whom come to college without college-level academic skills? If our formal mission declares a commitment to students of all backgrounds, how can we expect truly academic performances from those students deficient in college-level skills? The severe disproportionate numbers of academically underprepared students comprise students of color, and competent researchers see racism as a profound and long-standing cause of this educational blight.

Students who experience racism have low self-esteem and confidence, feel anxious and stressed, fall behind in schoolwork and get lower results in their exams. In their work on men of color and academic achievement, Harris and Wood (2013) researched how “societal messages about African American and Latino men’s academic abilities or racist stereotypes that depict them as lazy or disinterested in education can influence both students’ and educators’ views about the likelihood that these students will be successful in community college” (from “Student Success for Men of Color in Community Colleges: A Review of Published Literature and Research, 1998-2012).

As a first-generation immigrant from the Philippines, my public education experience in California reflects what many students of color continue to face in educational institutions—marginalization due to explicit and implicit racial/ethnic bias. In grade school, I remember being teased for my accent and being asked if my Pilipino family ate our pets. Even as I pursued my University of California graduate degrees, I experienced disparaging micro aggressions from my white counterparts and professors. Collectively, these experiences impacted my confidence and raised self-doubt in my academic abilities.

In addition to acknowledging research, we need to take stronger action to counter racist and other discriminatory behaviors to restore hope and self-esteem among students of color, so they can believe they will succeed in college. We can also build nurturing learning communities, for example, that use culturally relevant curricula and a pedagogy of self-reflection and personal narrative to validate student experiences. I believe that this “learning community” model provides a necessary cultural and curricular shift on the part of college faculty to begin unpacking the existing assets and capacities of our widely diverse students, rather than to focus on what they do not yet have.

At Berkeley City College (BCC) we have developed learning community programs such as PERSIST (Personal Initiative and Social Transformation), a one-semester bridge program that serves as a gateway toward success in college, for students who wish to transfer or to achieve workforce preparedness. The PERSIST cohort model serves students at the basic skills level who come from socio-economic disadvantage or disability, and as such provides intentional and effective educational access and success for populations underrepresented at BCC.

Our model was also conceived with a Social Justice imperative. PERSIST advances student access, success and equity, and addresses those egalitarian BCC core values of communication, computational skills, critical thinking, self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and information competency. To this end, PERSIST uses an “immersion” model put forth by the Academy for College Excellence (ACE), with two founding faculty as ACE Master Mentors nationwide. Major themes of the PERSIST/ACE Foundational Curriculum include: Deindustrialization of Education, Naming Needs and Emotion, Authentic Communication, and Bringing What You Learn Out into the World.

Successful learning experiences are dependent on the sustained engagement of diverse students. Continued experiences of racism are undeniably associated with increased levels of hopelessness and lower academic achievement. Our current political climate makes it incumbent upon educators to challenge and delegitimize racist and other discriminatory messages in order to restore hope, dreams, and valuation of self among students of color. If we can engage in this consciousness-raising work collectively across our institutions, then we can get one, two, three steps nearer to closing the racial achievement gap.

Visit Berkeley City College if you are interested in learning more about PERSIST and other Learning Community programs. The faculty and I are eager to share our students’ stories with you! You can contact me directly to schedule a visit at



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