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A Nation Engaged: New City Colleges Initiative Creates Barriers For Some

Christina Warden spends a lot of time thinking about how women can improve their own lives and the lives of their families.

“Education is still the best income strategy for low-income women,” said Warden, the Director of Education and Training Policy at Women Employed.

The non-profit organization advocates for better wages and benefits for women who work on the lower end of the labor market, as well as access to higher education opportunities.

For single mothers, higher education can make a significant difference. Nationally, they make up more than half of households that live below the poverty line. Community colleges can be the most affordable and effective way for them to help their families escape poverty. But for a long time, Warden said, City Colleges of Chicago wasn’t providing these women with a strong link to quality careers.

There was a misalignment,” she said. “The programs these women were going through either did not have the accreditation that employers were looking for or did not provide them with the skills that were expected once they were in the workplace.”

So Warden cheered when in 2010 City Colleges announced the new Reinvention initiative, which is meant to prepare students for actual jobs.

City Colleges partnered with private employers and brought in civic leaders and consultants to figure out which sectors were primed to offer the most jobs in coming years. It settled on eight areas, including advanced manufacturing, business and professional services, construction technology, culinary and hospitality, education, healthcare, IT and transportation logistics. Hundreds of companies partnered with City Colleges to commit to offering its graduates interviews and the possibility of employment.

As part of the reorganization effort, City Colleges consolidated programs so campuses would specialize in the high-demand areas. Nursing degrees, for example, would not be offered at multiple campuses anymore. Students would have to go to Malcolm X College on the Near West Side. This caused a backlash.

In February, City Colleges faculty announced they had taken a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Cheryl Hyman. A town hall held a month later allowed students, union representatives and elected officials to vent their fears that the changes would leave behind students who already struggle the most to get to class. Students who are working and raising children may be forced to give up their pursuit of higher education simply because the changes would make their commutes too long.

“There are students in these communities who are trying desperately to find a new way forward,” said Randall Miller, an adjunct faculty member at Truman College. “And we can’t cut them off at the knees, and we can’t cut off rungs from the ladder for them to move upward."

Tekneesha Lomax, a 28-year old woman who lives with her family on the South Side, is eager to get one of the 10,000 tantalizing computer science jobs that Chicago says it will have in 2020. She dreams of being a database manager.

“My plan, honestly, is simple,” she said. “Get through community college, work my way to university and make a lot of money.”

Lomax enrolled in Truman College last year for a degree in computer information systems. She said she chose the North Side campus because she visited the campus when her brother took classes there and fell in love with it. But one semester into her studies, she was notified that her degree would no longer be offered there. As part of Reinvention, Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side would become the new hub for studies in Information Technology.

“Why would I have started my degree here if I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish my degree here?” Lomax said.

She said that it already takes an hour for her to get to Truman from her home in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on the Southeast Side by train and bus.

“I have to take two buses and two trains to get from my house to Wilbur Wright, and that’s just too much," Lomax said. "The waiting time by itself is just too much.”

Lomax said the issue isn’t just the commute. It’s that she’s also mother to her 11-year-old son.

“I know how I’ll get there, but I don’t know how I’m going set up everything pertaining to my son,” she said. “That’s my main concern, making sure that he’s able to get to school and get from school safely because I don’t stay in one of the safest neighborhoods.”

On her son’s first day back at school, she said, there were shootings nearby.

“If I’m all the way at Wilbur Wright, and something happens… I mean, how am I supposed to feel about that?” she said.

This semester, Lomax has worked out a complicated patchwork schedule that has her going to three different campuses for her classes, but at least she avoids Wilbur Wright. Still, she knows she’ll eventually have to go there to complete her credits. She doesn’t know how she’ll make it work, but she’ll try, because she sees a future with better possibilities for herself and her son.

"Like right now we’re struggling to keep the bills paid, we’re struggling to keep the mortgage paid,” she said. “I want to be able to go to work, and still be able to watch my son grow up and be involved in his life. And me going back to school I think that’s going to actually help me get there.”

But Lomax said she if has to choose between school and her son, she will choose her son. She just shouldn’t have to.

City Colleges did not comment for this story, but it has said it intends to continue full steam with Reinvention, despite the pushback and declining enrollment. In 2015, total enrollment had fallen nearly 16 percent, compared to 2011. The ambitious plan will also have to continue under new leadership. In June, City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman said she would step down next summer.

This story is part of “A Nation Engaged,” an ongoing project among NPR and member stations. This week we are exploring the state of economic opportunity in America.

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousefand @WBEZoutloud.

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