START your tomorrows today," says the voice-over on the new recruiting video produced for the New Community College of Baltimore. A young man on the video shows viewers around the Liberty Heights campus of the college, into its new computer labs, past classrooms filled with attentive students and caring instructors and past the new entrance sign, where the word "New" has been added to the old "Community College of Baltimore."
More than just the sign has changed at the college, however, since my first visit 18 months ago. I happened to be visiting in Baltimore just after the General Assembly passed legislation transferring responsibility for the college from Baltimore city to the state of Maryland.
A break from my studies at the University of San Diego seemed in order. I'd been working on my doctorate in educational leadership for two years but hadn't come up with anything to research for my dissertation. Over coffee one morning, I read an editorial about the wisdom of the legislation and decided to find out more about the takeover.
I found the number for the Maryland Higher Education Commission in the telephone book and called the commission. Much to my surprise, Shaila Aery, the secretary of higher education, took my call, and agreed to provide any information she could, since she, like the governor, really believed CCB could be turned around.
I drove over to CCB's Liberty Heights campus that day and found the "New" banner already in place on the old concrete sign. Not much else was evident. Years of neglect had taken their toll; there were few students on the campus. I nearly broke an axle on the potholes in the driveway, and the whole place had a rather dispirited air.
I drove from Liberty Heights to the Inner Harbor campus, just across Pratt Street from Baltimore's showcase redevelopment project, and found the same thing: signs in place with the new name but buildings that were showing their age.
When I went into an English classroom, I found that only eight students were still enrolled, out of a class of 31 at the beginning of the semester. The instructor was working hard to keep a spirit of education alive, and the students still in the class were involved in the process, but the ghosts of the dropouts were everywhere around, weighing everyone's spirits down.
When I returned for a follow-up visit last April, things were starting to happen at NCCB. The new computer labs for reading and math were in place. Everyone I talked to had a story to tell about the "New" in NCCB: changes in the registration procedures that meant students spent less time in line, new programs to reach and advise high school students, innovative teaching techniques and an open door to the president's office that kept him in touch with the college community.
Still, optimism was guarded, as people expressed hope that enrollments might increase a little, to turn around the drastic decline that had started 10 years ago.
And when I returned recently, it became clear that there is a new atmosphere at the college. It was evident as soon as I set foot on the campus. Part of it is the dramatic increase in the number of students; NCCB led the state in the percentage increase in new full-time students last fall.
Part of it is a new pride in learning, a new energy that's infectious. People really are wearing name tags that say, "Ask me!" There's a new emphasis on life sciences and on African-American urban education.
At a meeting of the college's trustees, I heard about plans for assessment of student learning, about an innovative guarantee offered by the college to any employer or student who is not completely satisfied with the workplace skills of an NCCB graduate, about plans to link the college with the city's public schools.
By the time I finish my dissertation, the General Assembly will have voted on whether to continue funding the college. It should be unanimous. Considering the turnaround that has been accomplished in the last 18 months, California could learn a thing or two from the New Community College of Baltimore.
Helen Bishop writes from Poway, Calif.