- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

Keisha Whitaker-Duncan, a mother of six, splits her time away from home as an administrative assistant and student at Southeastern University.

“I wanted to show my children that it’s never too late, and I also want to get ahead,” she said on a recent day before class.

The 38-year-old’s jobs over the years with the federal government and a local health insurer brought steady paychecks but also a sense of frustration.

Co-workers with college degrees, including many who weren’t as capable or hard working, earned far more money: “Maybe my $30,000 could be $50,000 or $60,000,” she said.

For thousands of D.C. residents like Mrs. Whitaker-Duncan, education is the key to a better life. But the long road to a college degree, in a city filled with prominent universities, is made difficult by the lack of a community college system, according a new study being released today by D.C. Appleseed Center and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

“To allow all members of the community to benefit from the higher paying jobs available in the District and give low-skilled residents a chance to participate in its prosperity, the District must further invest in building a skilled work force,” the study concludes.

“Indeed, one of the most critical components of work-force development — a community college system — is available in every state and medium-to-large urban area in the country, yet none exists in the District.”

For years, calls for a community college have surfaced only to fade away. And a big investment by city officials right now might be difficult, after they spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals.

But Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed, said building a new school isn’t the only way to start a community college system. Another idea could involve partnerships with the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and other institutions.

“There are lots of different ways this can happen,” he said.

Ed Lazere, executive director for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said: “People at the highest level of the D.C. government are going to have to make this a priority. There needs to be a lot more public discussion and ‘buy-in’ from our public officials.”

Several colleges in the District already have associate-degree programs, including Southeastern, where Mrs. Whitaker-Duncan enrolled four years ago.

But according to a report last year by the Brookings Institution, associate degrees comprised 35 percent of all of the degrees awarded by UDC in 2004-05. Yet the university offers far fewer fields of study for associate-degree students, compared to nearby community college systems, the Brookings report found.

Officials also say an effort to start a community college should coincide with initiatives to improve adult literacy and job programs, so adult students have a solid foundation when entering community college.

Some programs already exist. Allison Kokkoros, principal of the Carlos Rosario International School in the District, said her charter school serves 1,200 adult students, offering general equivalency degrees, English as a second language and other courses.

When Carlos Rosario students graduate, many go to Northern Virginia Community College and UDC, Miss Kokkoros said.

“The city has been very supportive of us,” she said.

Matthew Yeo, a private lawyer who works with D.C. Appleseed on work-force development issues, said the District also needs to improve vocational training.

“Our system of moving the working poor into more stable and higher paying jobs has really broken down,” he said. “Even compared to other cities, the District hasn’t done a particularly good job at this.”

After four years, Mrs. Whitaker-Duncan expects to graduate with an associate degree in June. She then plans on working toward a bachelor’s degree in business.

“The juggle is really, really hard,” she said. “But at some point, you just kind of want to show your children that there’s a different way in life.”

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