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New state policy on community college classes irks some SRJC students

Danielle Jolliff, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, exercises with a hand bike during Adaptive Physical Education at SRJC on Thursday, February 28, 2013.

(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 5:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 5:35 p.m.

Danielle Jolliff hasn't had a seizure in eight years.

The 32-year-old Sebastopol resident was born with epilepsy and cerebral palsy and until her mid-20s, suffered grand mal seizures about once month, said her mom, Nicole Nunes.

Yet since ramping up their involvement in the Santa Rosa Junior College adapted physical education program — sometimes coming to swimming and weight classes five days a week — the seizures that plagued her daughter have stopped, Nunes said.

But beginning next semester, Jolliff, who attended Piner High School, no longer will be eligible to take most adapted P.E. classes because of a sweeping new statewide policy intended to give higher priority for enrollment and resources to students actively pursuing a degree or a transfer to a four-year university.

The policy, adopted in September and put in place across the 112-campus community college system, dramatically limits most students' ability to repeat classes — an element essential to adapted P.E. classes such as those Nunes has taken her daughter to for years.

“You can't get over these things in a semester. It doesn't work that way,” Nunes said.

The new policy allows for some discretion, but the intent is clear that students must be taking classes in pursuit of an educational goal, said Patie Wegman, dean of the Disabled Students Programs & Services at Santa Rosa Junior College.

A student “can petition to repeat a special class but then they have to meet certain criteria,” she said. “It cannot be that the goal is to complete that class.”

In 2007-08, SRJC offered 17 adapted P.E. classes in each of the fall and spring semesters. In summer, 14 classes were offered. By 2009-10, summer school was eliminated, and this year, seven classes were offered in the fall and eight this semester.

The rules further limit availability by preventing students from repeating classes in most cases if they can't prove they are on track for a degree or a four-year school.

“I have taken everything they have to offer,” said Luigi Fabiano, 76, of Santa Rosa. “When I first went there after my stroke in '97, I couldn't even stand up in the water, I'd fall over. I had no support on my left side.”

“They taught me to survive,” he said.

Last week, Fabiano was one of 11 students in the Analy Village lab room on the western edge of the Santa Rosa Junior College campus working out and stretching with the help of an equal number of attendants.

Students lie atop padded tables while being stretched, practice fine motor skills by grasping at beans, spin on recumbent bikes and walk between parallel bars.

The college has been a part of Fabiano's daily routine for years. He employs an SRJC kinesiology student to help him through his workout and tutors other college students in English.

But he's not pursuing a degree or certificate, so he is not eligible to retake the physical education classes he says have been life-changing for him over the years.

The need for the adapted P.E. courses and the network of support they foster is apparent, but whether community colleges can continue to bear the cost of the needs of an aging local population that is increasingly reliant on rehabilitation-type services is not as clear, Wegman said.

“It's in the best interest of our community, beyond the college, to be prepared for that,” she said.

Even with the announcement last week that the passage of Proposition 30 in November has ushered in the addition of 500 classes at Santa Rosa Junior College next year, the focus remains on those students studying for a degree or to transfer to a four-year school.

Administrators, too, are coming to grips with the change to the program that was established in the 1970s primarily to help Vietnam veterans rehabilitate their bodies and enroll in college courses.

“If you put on your philosopher hat, it comes down to the state of California can't continue to be all things to all people,” Wegman said.

Not every constituency is disappointed by the change.

The revision addresses the mission community colleges are charged with, said Audrey Dow, community affairs director for The Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit college-access advocacy group.

“The system doesn't have the luxury at this point to be everything to everybody,” she said.

The California Community College system has not been everything to everybody for a long time. The system served 2.9 million students in 2008-09 but 2.4 million in 2011-12 after course offerings were slashed under the weight of $809 million in cuts. Still, of all students in California currently enrolled in college, 70 percent are in community college, Dow said.

Community colleges need to focus resources toward training and educating the next generation of California's workforce, she said.

“There is an economic imperative here that we are talking about,” Dow said. “I don't think it's about colleges saying 'We don't want to offer cello to adults.' People are saying we have a real workforce crisis coming up and we have a capacity issue.”

Josh Carroll is one of the few current adapted P.E. students at Santa Rosa Junior College who under the new policy likely will be able to keep registering for classes because he is taking classes in pursuit of his GED.

Carroll severed his spinal cord in an automobile accident two years ago. He uses a wheelchair and has no feeling below his chest.

The exuberant, heavily tattooed 32-year-old said the accident changed more than his body; it left him mentally shattered.

His outlook — and his physical fitness — changed when he enrolled in adapted P.E. classes at the college, he said.

“Being around people that look like me, it's like you fit in. I was depressed before I came to this,” he said. “I felt like I wasn't part of society, part of life.”

The chance to work out with SRJC trainer John Adams and use equipment designed to accommodate a wheelchair and a body that doesn't function as it once did pushes Carroll to drive from his Guerneville home every day and take academic courses.

“This class has enabled me to come every day,” he said. “This class is making me feel like I can do it.”

Kathy Bell, the college's adapted P.E. coordinator who has worked in the department for three decades, has been working with other agencies and vendors to establish programs similar to those offered at the college. A swim class at Ridgway Swim Center aimed at her current students begins this month.

She also is developing non-credit classes that have some additional enrollment flexibility under the new rules. But there will be reduced capacity. Lab courses that now enroll 50 to 60 people and offer a large window of time in which to show up, would likely be limited to 30 students for set hours, she said.

“Some people say it's like taking the community out of community college,” she said. “Whether it's an unintended consequence, I don't know.”

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs. pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)

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