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New St. Louis Community College center aims to broaden educational opportunity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 9, 2010 - St. Louis Community College officially opened the new William J. Harrison Education Center campus Friday. The goal of the campus, at 3140 Cass Avenue near Grand Avenue, is to lower the barriers that students from the JeffVanderLou neighborhood face attending college.

The new campus includes five classrooms, two computer labs, a science lab and art space in addition to staff offices. Already enrolled for fall semester are 100 students, but Karen Bailey, the center's acting manager, expects that at full capacity, the center will educate 550 to 600 students a semester.

Founded in 1994 and originally located at the Julia Davis branch of the St. Louis Public Library, the Harrison Center's mission is to bring educational opportunities to students who would otherwise not have them. Locating the center in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood was a deliberate choice, DeLancey Smith, STLCC's director of communications, said.

"The area is the most underserved by the current campuses," Smith said. The college has recently focused on increasing its graduation rate with students, especially male students of color. "Whatever their goal is -- a certification or to graduate and go on to a four-year college -- we want this center to help students achieve that."

The new campus is the only comunity college campus in north St. Louis. Because of its location, "we are able to provide outreach right in the neighborhood," Bailey said.

Bailey also touted the center's student support specialists, a "blended position" that allows a student to meet with a single staff member who serves as an academic advisor, financial-aid officer, and guide to the school.

Bailey hoped that these assets, along with the center's small size, would create an environment welcoming to students and providing the structure needed for high graduation rates.

"College can be intimidating because you have a big campus, and so many different departments that one has to visit before they are able to start classes. The idea of the Harrison Center is to make education unintimidating," Bailey said.

The center is not just seeking students interested in transferring to four-year colleges. It seeks "all kinds of students," said Bailey. With higher education no longer a straight track, the center hopes to retrain unemployed workers from the neighborhood and attract older students who never thought they could attend college.

The opening of the center came during a week where community colleges in general have received much publicity. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, both spoke at the White House Summit on Community Colleges (transcript). The president challenged the nation's community college's to graduate an additional 5 million students by 2020. The summit coincided with the start of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation five-year initiative to raise community college graduation rates.

Chancellor Zelema Harris, who attended the White House summit, said in her opening remarks that it was fitting that she begin her week in Washington and ended it at the Harrison Center's opening. "It's not enough to bring people here," she said. Once here, "We have to make sure they succeed."

Alexz Sciuto is an intern at the Beacon. 

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