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Building unity at Foothill College

New cohort program seeks to improve outcomes for black students

From 2014 to 2015, 328 Foothill College students transferred to California state universities. Just five of them were black.

On top of that, African-American students at the Los Altos Hills community college have reported feeling a sense of "invisibility," with no strong connections or tight-knit community on campus, according to Foothill English professor Samuel White.

"We know for a fact that our African-American students here, they're suffering," White said. "They're really falling through the cracks, if you will. They are not achieving success like other populations here."

These sobering statistics and sentiments drove White and Professor Kimberly Escamilla to launch this fall a new cohort program dedicated to supporting first-year African-American students through a more concerted focus on black culture, history and community.

Foothill's new Umoja cohort (named after the Swahili word for "unity") is one of many like it at community colleges across the state. The broader Umoja Community, a grassroots nonprofit now sponsored by the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, has since its formation in 2008 sought to promote learning about African and African-American culture through a core set of pedagogies, curricula and practices, while also providing targeted support to students who might otherwise flounder at large community colleges.

The program's goal is to increase retention, transfer and graduation rates for students of color, though Umoja is open to students of all races. According to a 2015 report on the program's statewide impact, Umoja students were 25 percent more likely to remain in community college, have a higher grade-point average and be ready for transfer-level work in a shorter time frame.

At Foothill, Umoja is designed to provide a "safe place for students to discuss real issues that affect them and the broader community," a press release announcing the program's creation states.

About 60 students tested into Umoja's two tracks, one more advanced, of English, communications, psychology and mathematics courses. The classes are taught by three instructors, including White, who is African-American. (Students can take other classes outside of the program as well.) Students are admitted to the program in the fall and stay together throughout their first year at Foothill.

The program also "seeks to help students develop a sense of pride, ownership and responsibility in their own speaking and writing," the press release states. On a recent Friday afternoon, about 20 students in White's class took turns reading out loud from a section of Malcolm X's 1965 autobiography about teaching himself to read from a dictionary while he was in jail. Throughout the program, the students will study significant African-American figures, both past and present, from W.E.B. DuBois and Maya Angelou to Ta-Nehisi Coates and President Barack Obama.

White also began the class with a traditional African call-and-response ritual meant to engender a sense of responsibility and identity: He said "ago," (pronounced ah-go) to the class, a term "used to gain the attention of a group, or used as a way to ask permission to enter a space," the course syllabus reads. The students responded with "ame" (pronounced ah-may), which "acknowledges the speaker and quiets the space, so that the discussion may begin."

Personal support of each student is also central to the program's design. A designated counselor meets regularly with Umoja students and their teachers and even attends some of their classes. It's a stark difference, White said, from the frustrating "bureaucracy of things" for many Foothill students who have a hard time scheduling time with counselors and rarely get to see the same counselor throughout their time at the community college. They're hoping this will help improve African-American students' rates of retention, White said.

The students will go on field trips together and participate in other enrichment activities outside of class, from checking out local four-year colleges to visiting the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. And with a new dedicated study and social space on campus, Umoja students have a physical space to gather and call their own.

The program's ultimate vision, White said, "is to increase success of black students and have them actually come here and leave via transfer, not just drop off."

Officially, Foothill has signed pathways-to-transfer agreements for Umoja students with the University of California system as well historically black colleges and universities. From this year on, Foothill will track how many Umoja students successfully transfer to four-year institutions.

"We know that if a student has a target, a tangible goal, they will likely gravitate toward that goal with support," White said.

To measure success in other ways, he and the other instructors are developing quantitative goals through the community college's institutional research department.

At its core, Umoja is about the power of community. In preparation for creating the Umoja program, Foothill surveyed its African and African-American students last year (of which there are few; only about 3 percent of the school's 13,500-student population is black, White said). The college asked questions like "Do you have friends on campus that you socialize with?" "Have you had any African-American instructors at Foothill?" and "What could Foothill do to help you feel more welcomed or be more involved on campus?"

Many students said they wanted something like Umoja an established community or club dedicated to black students at Foothill. The college already offers similar programs for other student populations, such as Puente, which was formed in 1993 to reduce the achievement gap between Latino and white students, but has since evolved to help all first-generation college students transfer to four-year colleges and universities. In the 2015-16 school year, the program had a 81 percent retention rate. Last year, Foothill also launched First Year Experience, a pilot program that places students who are the first in their families to go to college, foster youth, single parents and others into a cohort to support them in their transition to college.

Several current Umoja students said it was the promise of a strong campus community that drew them to the program.

Jason Wagner, 19, an East Palo Alto native who recently graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School, was one of several Foothill football players whom the team's coach encouraged to sign up for the program. The prospect of "building relationships with other people" attracted Wagner to Umoja, he said in an interview with the Weekly.

Jasmine Charles, a 17-year-old Foothill student from East Palo Alto, said it was important to her to have the opportunity to learn more about African-American history and culture at school something she's been to exposed to at home by her parents, she said, but not in her K-12 educational experience.

"My elementary school teachers never really talked about this kind of stuff, not even middle school or high school teachers," she said. "Being able to hear from another adult besides my parents about these topics attracted me to it (the program)."

Charles was also glad to see a more diverse group of students than she expected in her classes a mix of black, white and Latino students. While the program's target demographic is African-American students, no applicants were turned away, White said.

Talking about black history, social movements and African-Americans' contributions to society feels even more critical, Charles said, at a time when the nation is experiencing tumultuous race relations and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. She views Umoja as providing a safe space to talk about these and other contentious topics.

"If you don't talk about it, then there are no solutions," Charles said. "There are people ... who want to express themselves but can't because they don't have the community or the group to do it."

It's well-understood at community colleges, universities and K-12 campuses across the nation that for students of color, success often depends on their sense of belonging.

"When you go to a place where you don't see many people like you, you might interpret that as you not being welcome," White said. "We can reinforce history and contributions and culture and validity and make them understand: 'You belong here, too.'"

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