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The second class status of part-time faculty at California’s community colleges is a decades-long problem that demands novel solutions. With conditions worsening, state and local leaders need to find new ways to address the problem, panelists said Wednesday during an EdSource roundtable.

That could include agreeing on a master contract that sets minimum job requirements, pay and benefits; passing legislation to improve adjunct working conditions; and determining how to best utilize $200 million proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2022-23 state budget for adjunct health care benefits.

Whatever the solution, panelists agreed that something must be done for the part-time faculty, also known as adjuncts, who make up two-thirds of the instructors at California’s 115 brick-and-mortar community colleges. The pandemic-driven loss in student enrollment is costing them jobs. Often, they work semester-by-semester with little or no job security, and those difficult conditions often trickle down and diminish the student experience, panelists said.

“As an adjunct, there’s always that feeling of, will I be needed this next semester? You’re always kind of waiting for that email or that conversation with the department chair,” said Kenneth Brown, a panelist who was recently the president of the board of California Community College trustees. An aerospace engineer, he teaches physics as an adjunct at California State University Dominguez Hills.

Nearly 37,000 adjunct instructors are the backbone of the state’s community college system, which is the nation’s largest higher-education system. Adjuncts often take gigs at multiple college districts to cobble together something akin to full-time work, but at pay rates vastly lower than full-time professors.

Since the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, enrollment has plummeted at the community colleges, resulting in fewer jobs for adjuncts. Enrollment declined significantly during the 2020-21 academic year: The community college system reported its enrollment at 1.8 million, down about 15% from before the pandemic. Many colleges have continued to lose students over the most recent 2021-22 academic year.

Even though problems facing adjuncts have been exacerbated during the pandemic, the issue is not a new one. Community colleges have long relied on part-time faculty to balance their budgets and give them the flexibility to hire faculty as needed. Whether they get health benefits depends on which district employs them.  As EdSource revealed in a three-part series in February,  33 of the 72 community college districts offer no health benefits.

Adjuncts grossed an average of less than $20,000 per district, according to 2020 salary data for 41 of the 72 districts that listed titles for part-time faculty. The data was obtained by EdSource under the state’s Public Records Act.

Often, it is students who pay the price for the poor working conditions of part-time faculty, panelists said. For example, there is wide variation across California’s community colleges when it comes to compensation for office hours, which are often as crucial to student success as regular classroom instruction. Some adjuncts don’t get paid at all for office hours, and some refuse to put in that time for no pay. Full-time faculty typically are compensated for office hours and any work outside the classroom.

John Martin, a panelist and an adjunct faculty member at Shasta and Butte colleges, said he no longer meets with students outside the classroom because he doesn’t get paid for those hours.

“Why should I work for free? I meet with them right after class, right before class, but I’m not going to hold office hours unless they are paid,” said Martin, who is also chair of the California Part-Time Faculty Association, an advocacy group for adjuncts.

Another panelist, Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, pointed out that adjunct “working conditions are our student learning conditions” yet students attending California’s community colleges are often among the lowest-income students.

Part-time faculty are asked to help lift those students out of poverty and into the workforce, even though the faculty themselves aren’t fairly compensated, creating a difficult situation for both students and faculty, Brill-Wynkoop said.

“You’re asking those who are unfairly compensated to lift others out of poverty,” she said.

At the same time, part-time faculty have essentially been pitted against full-time faculty, said Jose Fierro, president of Cerritos College and a roundtable panelist.

“Years of policy have led to disparity, and this disparity often puts two groups in competition,” he said. “So in a state like California … oftentimes you have contracts that give priority of assignment to full-time faculty.”

The solution lies beyond individual campuses, he added. “The way to talk about working conditions and employment for part-time faculty is to look at the larger system issues rather than what we find in 115 different colleges, because there are 115 different ways in which that will be addressed. And we’ll see that that’s not working.”

Another panelist, William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York City, said there are several routes California can take to improve the realities of part-time faculty.

One option, according to Herbert, would be to establish minimum standards at a statewide level that would set a baseline for issues like compensation and benefits for adjuncts.

Another option would be to create better conditions through collective bargaining and even come up with a master contract that could be applied to campuses across the state.

“It could create a better playing field for everyone,” Herbert said. “A part of those negotiations could be creating a pathway towards full-time employment.”

Adjuncts told EdSource that they don’t feel that they get a fair shot at full-time jobs given their teaching experience.

Martin said his organization, which does not negotiate adjunct contracts, is finally getting attention from the state’s unions. “They are listening to us. However, there are a group of people in power that are dragging their heels, and they are in strong opposition to amend our working conditions.”

There have been several proposals this year at the statewide level that could improve the circumstances of adjunct faculty. On Thursday, one bill affecting adjunct faculty cleared a key committee while another was shelved.

Assembly Bill 1856 would allow adjuncts to teach up to 85% of a full-time teaching load in a single district, something that would provide them more stability and lessen their need to cobble together jobs across multiple districts. The bill was passed Thursday by the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. However, Newsom vetoed similar legislation last year. 

Assembly Bill 1752, meanwhile, died Thursday in the same committee. It proposed to bring pay equity between part-time and full-time faculty by requiring districts to pay their part-timers the same average hourly wage as the average hourly pay for full-time faculty.

At the same time, Newsom’s budget proposal includes $200 million to fund health care coverage for adjuncts at colleges across the state. The money would fund a pool to which local districts would have to apply for reimbursement for 50% of their cost of providing coverage. The fund has been badly underfunded in recent years. The terms would have to be negotiated at every campus. Still, the proposal is seen as an investment that would vastly increase what is currently available.

Fierro, the president of Cerritos College, suggested during the roundtable that the money for health care could be allocated at a statewide level, rather than at local colleges.

“This should be an opportunity for us to look at how we can enroll part-time faculty into a statewide system of benefits, utilizing the purchasing power that is in this year’s budget and that has already been given to the districts and maybe saying, we’re going to take back all that and this is going to be a big umbrella through the state in which we can affiliate community college employees that meet these specific characteristics,” he said.

“The power that we will have in numbers, not just in numbers of faculty, but the amount of money that collectively is spent, I think could provide something a little better than what we individually could,” Fierro added.

During the roundtable, panelists also addressed the racial makeup of faculty at the community colleges, which does not reflect the diversity of the students attending those colleges. Nearly 60% of faculty across the state are white, while 71% of students are from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, including students who are Latino, Black, Asian and Native American.

Brill-Wynkoop said it’s an “enormous problem” that is compounded by the poor working conditions for part-timers.

“So we’ve created a circumstance where we need to bring in new, fresh ideas, younger, diverse faculty, and it is very difficult when we’ve created a system where the chances of getting a full-time position and being able to sustain yourself are very small,” she said.

Fierro added, though, that it will require more than just higher pay and better working conditions to ensure that the faculty match the diversity of the students. One possible solution, he said, is making sure job hiring panels include diverse members.

“Panels tend to hire what they reflect,” he said. “And if we do not diversify panels, we will continue to hire in the same way we have been doing.”

How can California improve the working conditions of community college adjuncts?

State leaders need to recognize that learning to read is a civil right and must “get off the fence” and “take responsibility” for the fact that more than 60% of California third graders are reading below grade level, panelists said Thursday during an EdSource roundtable discussion on early literacy.

The state should ensure that teachers are offered research-based training on reading instruction, that K-two students are screened for risks of reading failure and that reading curricula are tested for effectiveness, said Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee and co-founder of the literacy instruction advocacy group FULCRUM, Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate.

Calling the failure to teach reading a long-ignored crisis that has been highlighted by the pandemic, Weaver called for action. 

“The state needs to get off the fence, and stop placating power,” Weaver said. “We need the leadership at the state level, both in the Legislature and in the Department of Education, so there’s clarity and resources available to teachers to get the greatest number of kids reading.”

Educators and advocates on the panel also highlighted the work of 72 schools across the state that are getting early literacy grants as part of a 2020 $50 million court settlement with the state. While the settlement qualified 75 of the state’s lowest-performing schools to receive funding, 72 applied for the grants.

The lawsuit, brought by the advocacy law firm Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law challenged the state to recognize the basic right “that all children had to be given the tools by which they would have the opportunity to learn,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the lead attorney in the case.

“Tragically, the state of California fought us. They said no such right existed. They said these kids did not have a right. They blamed the kids as opposed to the system itself. This is not a failure of children. It’s a failure of the state of California and the system itself. They fought us tooth and nail, but ultimately, we won in court that the right existed.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom said the administration has, in fact, made early childhood literacy a “top priority” in recent years and pointed to his 2022-23 budget proposal for $700 million “to hire training coaches and reading specialists, expand multilingual school libraries, and improve early identification and screening for learning differences.”

Newsom’s plan, unveiled in January, includes $500 million over five years for high-needs schools to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists, as well as a $200 million grant program for schools to create or expand their multilingual schools and purchase culturally-relevant texts for reading instruction. Newsom’s proposal calls for $10 million to support dyslexia research at UC San Francisco. Newsom himself struggled with dyslexia as a child. Since 2019, the state has invested $92.7 million in research, services, and professional development to improve literacy instruction and support for children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

Rosenbaum said state leaders should now look at how the schools getting funding following the lawsuit have improved their students’ reading performance as a model for how it can be done in the rest of the state. “If this is a pilot program, it has succeeded,” Rosenbaum said. “We don’t need a task force; we don’t need more studies; we just need a commitment to expand to every kid, every teacher, and every school where the need is, which is up and down the state of California.” 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond last fall set the goal of getting all third-graders reading by 2026 and created a task force of education experts to figure out how to achieve that goal. Thurmond is also calling on districts and charter schools to adopt that goal and offering them technical assistance.  His office released a statement noting that Thurmond supports Newsom’s literacy proposals and “from day one has dedicated himself to supporting the success of all California’s students, especially those who have faced disproportionate barriers in the educational system. He is on record time and time again saying, ‘Reading is a gateway skill. If you can learn to read, you can read to learn anything. When children don’t learn to read by third grade there is a greater chance they fall victim to the school to prison pipeline.'”

Panelists agreed that the research on how students learn to read should guide educators when helping children learn the skill.

Becky Sullivan, of the Sacramento County Office of Education, who is guiding the participating schools as they carry out their programs, emphasized that third grade is just too late.  Children must be taught how to read by the end of first grade, she said. “So we basically have 360 days to get it right. You have kindergarten and first grade, you have got to get it done. And then the journey is so much more successful and easier for kids.” 

For years, experts have identified third grade reading proficiency as an important benchmark in students’ overall academic careers. Research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by then will struggle to catch up throughout their educational careers and can be at greater risk of dropping out of school and ending up in the criminal justice system.

Panelists cautioned against focusing too much on the reading scores of third graders. The state used third grade reading levels to identify which schools would receive the grants because “that’s all we have,” said Jamie Allardice, principal of Richmond’s Nystrom Elementary, one of the schools getting the funding. The state’s Smarter Balanced test for English language arts isn’t given to earlier grades. Nystrom used some of its grant funding to conduct the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, assessments for its students.

The schools are only in their first year in the program, which provides just three years of funding. Sullivan, who leads the oversight, said the Sacramento County Office of Education developed a three-year plan for the schools to improve their literacy instruction. Each developed a unique “literacy action plan” that includes assessments and consistent data collection. Each school receives monthly professional development for not only teachers but literacy coaches, administrators and anybody else involved in teaching students how to read, Sullivan said.

The County Office of Education also introduced the schools to the “science of reading” approach to literacy instruction, which is based on research on how students learn to read, and puts a heavy emphasis on phonics. Nystrom continues to see growth across all grades after implementing this approach.

The science of reading differs from the “balanced literacy” approach to reading instruction, which limits the amount of time spent on phonics instruction in order to allow students to develop their own love for reading. 

The debate on which approach is better has been dubbed “the reading wars.” Panelists were in agreement that the wars are over, with research supporting explicit phonics instruction. Some educators still strongly believe in balanced literacy and getting them to break from that approach remains a challenge to spreading the science of reading to more schools, Sullivan said.

“How kids learn how to read is settled science,” Sullivan said. “We have this big implementation gap getting it into classrooms.”

Training teachers on the science of reading approach led to early literacy gains at Joshua Elementary School in Lancaster School District, especially in grades K-3, said principal Lorraine Zapata.

“One of the things that I think this grant brought to us was the shared, common understanding of what the science of reading is and that we do have the ability to teach our students in a way that is research-based and best practices,” she said.

Panelists also agreed that it was critically important for teachers to be trained in the science of reading as part of a comprehensive training plan for the whole school system.

The roundtable, moderated by Anne Vasquez, EdSource executive director, and Karen D’Souza, early education reporter, opened with a trailer from an upcoming documentary featuring Weaver titled “The Right To Read.”

In addition to Newsom’s proposals to increase literacy funding, legislators are also considering several bills aimed at improving literacy.  

Assembly Bill 2465 would create grant programs to provide library cards to every public school student, fund programs that would include home visits to engage families in their students’ literacy instruction, and pay for the development and credentialing of 500 new bilingual educators. AB 2498 would establish a three-year pilot summer literacy and learning-loss mitigation program next year based on the Freedom Schools programs. SB 952 would provide grants to school districts, county offices of education and certain charter schools to create dual language immersion programs. SB 237 would require the state to start screening all kindergartners, first graders and second graders for dyslexia starting in the 2022-23 school year.

An unmet promise: Early literacy for all in California

Out of her new apartment’s kitchen, Tami Rossell spends hours each week cooking and preparing hot meals for those who live in their vehicles and sleep in city-designated safe parking zones.

Three nights a week, Rossell visits that night’s designated parking lot in Union City. From her vehicle, she brings out about a dozen plastic foam food containers that she has prefilled with the evening’s fare.

It’s always nighttime and dark by the time she arrives, but she insists on scanning the parking lot for vehicles she might recognize so she can personally deliver the food and ask how they are holding up.

She leaves behind enough meals for others to get when they are ready.

The meals she cooks are mostly made with staples donated by local community organizations. If she needs additional items, she pays for them herself.

She sells clothing, face masks and purses that she sews herself to help fund the food purchases.

She then volunteers her cooking time through the catering business she has founded to help provide the meals to her former neighbors.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Tami Rossell cooks hot meals three times a week for people living in their vehicles in Union City — an experience she was living just four months ago.

She has also received some relief from the stress of paying her full rent through a local anti-domestic violence organization called Ruby’s Place. That rental subsidy has been life-changing, and it has allowed her to better help others, she said.

Rossell and her three youngest children were sleeping in her van alongside them just four months ago, after her 16-year-old daughter convinced her the parking lot with a security guard was safer than a hotel room where they were often catcalled and where the rent was just too high.

“Her trust in me is what freed us,” said Rossell, who now lives in Hayward just a few miles south of the San Francisco area’s East Bay. “When I think of home, home is safety. And for the first time in my life, I had a home. My car became home.”

Rossell, a spirited Black woman in her forties who studied psychology in college, has a history of turning her own life experiences into a stream of support for those around her. For example, she periodically teaches a course with the city of Hayward where she shares how to feed a family of 10 on $50 per week — all stemming from her experiences feeding her seven children on a limited budget.

That resourcefulness, she said, is what led them to CAREavan, the safe overnight parking program in Union City, and helped them make the most out of it.

CAREavan was founded in 2016 through a partnership between Union City, New Haven Unified School District, various community organizations and local parishes. Everyone wanted to help the residents living in poverty who make up about 5.6% of Union City’s population of about 70,000.

At the time, the school district had noticed a drop in student attendance so significant that they sent school staff to check in with the families of the students who were missing school. That’s when they realized that rent hikes throughout the region had pushed many families into their vehicles.

“We just felt it was a human right to have access to a restroom and to water, and our families needed that,” said Lourdes Villegas, a community specialist with the Union City Family Center and the homeless liaison for the New Haven Unified School District.

CAREavan was then created rather swiftly, with initial conversations occurring in January 2016 and the first participants joining the program by May of the same year. It began by offering three basic living necessities for families with children: a secure place to sleep, access to showers and access to restrooms from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day of the week. Eventually, the program allowed others without children to also use the overnight parking.

Initially funded solely through the city’s Community and Recreation Services department, the program has since received grants that have allowed for additional amenities such as contracting a mobile hygiene unit from the city of Fremont that provides two showers plus three sets of washers and dryers on a weekly basis.

Because each location is used by the general Union City community during the business hours – they range from community centers to senior centers — the locations change each night to ensure cars are driven out of the parking lots each morning.

The program has hosted up to an average of 30 vehicles at a time, and in recent months an average of 12 vehicles show up on any given night.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Tami Rossell delivers homemade meals on a Monday night at a Union City community center.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that they would rather sleep in their car sometimes than stay in a shelter, because they don’t feel safe in those places and at least in their car, they do,” said Jesus Garcia, the program coordinator for CAREavan.

If someone is interested in CAREavan, Garcia is the person they connect with to receive an enrollment form and an overview of the program rules, which include quiet time after 10 p.m., consistent supervision of all children and pets, and not allowing any unauthorized people and vehicles to be on the premises.

For years, Rossell had researched van life, a concept where people choose to live in their vans not out of necessity but because of the freedom of movement it can provide. She began looking into it after a first bout with homelessness in 2012 left her knowing she never again wanted to feel forced to rely on hotels for shelter.

Her goal was to slowly purchase items she would need once she chose to live in her van —such as a power generator, a portable toilet, a portable shower system, curtains for privacy, an inflatable bed — and then go on the road once her high school-age children both turned 18 years old.

It turned out she needed to use those items much sooner than expected.

That’s because toward the end of 2020, Rossell and her three youngest children began feeling unsafe living in an apartment, in part because of issues with neighbors and in part due to incidents of domestic violence. She initially moved in with one of her adult daughters, but she didn’t feel comfortable staying longer than two months.

By then, Rossell had moved her 16-year-old daughter from Hayward Unified School District to neighboring New Haven Unified School District in Union City where she learned about CAREavan. Soon after, they moved into a local hotel room.

Rossell initially enrolled so they could have a safety net, but she still wanted to try keeping her children inside the hotel room.

But that soon changed when Rossell had to insist that the children ages 7 to 16 stay inside. She was worried about the catcalls from passersby. She especially wanted to protect her two daughters from sex traffickers who were rumored to be in the neighborhood. On top of that, Rossell was sewing most hours of the day with little sleep in order to make enough face masks and clothing she could sell to keep up with the high cost of the room.

Her daughter, seeing how little sleep Rossell was getting, talked to her about using CAREavan.

“She just said: ‘I care about you, and you’re hurting yourself. And can you care about you the way that I care about you?’” Rossell recalled.

CAREavan turned out to be the best decision for her family. Staying there in their van each night made it easier for her children to do their homework, for them to cook dinner each evening, and for her to use her sewing machine to make the face masks and clothing without the pressure of paying for the hotel room.

The program felt freeing and safe, said Rossell, who relied on CAREavan all through 2021. She cherished feeling secure after all the instability they had lived through.

Joining the CAREvan program also eased the stress and tension among the children, which had triggered fights and arguments.

“I knew nothing could get to me. There was no one controlling me and telling me which way to go,” said Rossell, as she described the importance of her freedom after experiencing domestic violence throughout her life. “And the people there within the program become family; we look out for each other. For the first time, I just felt so safe and protected and just a part of somewhere that I belonged.”

On a recent Monday, she filled disposable containers with rice, beans, corn, (some had chicken) and handmade flour tortillas. She recognized just one of the handful of cars that were parked by 8 p.m. on that night at a local community center and went right up to it to deliver a meal. After a brief conversation, she told the man, who was there by himself, that she would check in again with him on Wednesday night when she returned with another stack of meals.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Tami Rossell prepares handmade flour tortillas in her kitchen.

She also noticed a new couple on that day, someone she had seen only a handful of times over the past month. There was a look in the woman’s eyes, she said — a pained expression she recognized. She understood how they felt not knowing how to move their lives forward.

“When you’ve lived a certain pain, you know it without saying a word,” Rossell said. She approached the vehicle to try connecting with the couple, but only the man in the vehicle looked at her and responded. She would continue trying to connect every time she saw them, she later said.

“If I’m on day 30 of my pain and you’re on day one; there’s absolutely something I can do to help you pull you through. I’ve lived through that first 30, right?” said Rossell. “So, it’s just about helping. I guess my thing is I believe in loving with my whole heart.”

After living in her van in a city lot, she now feeds others who park there

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