Bienvenido in Cicero, Ill.

A driven president pushes a community college to change radically to serve Latino students who are now its primary demographic.
September 7, 2005

"Imagina lo que puedes hacer!"

The bright orange signs, hoisted high on lightpoles in the parking lot of Morton College, rise distinctly out of the flatness of Cicero, a few miles southwest of Chicago.

At 9 a.m. the expansive parking lot is filling up quickly. Students amble through the lot toward the main entrance, some more awake than others. They rush toward the main entrance. Above it is red, white and blue bunting and a sign: “Welcome, Bienvenido.” The students pour through the main revolving door, keeping it spinning like a merry-go-round on overdrive. The door spins students into an area in front of Erubey Diaz, Morton class of 2003, who mans the greeting desk. Around her curving desk spirals a translucent, foggy, pale blue glass wall: “welcome, bienvenido, welcome, bienvenido, bienvenido.Bienvenidos spiral around Diaz. A man approaches, looking for directions. “You have to go outside, then turn left,” she tells him. An older woman wants Diaz to tell her when registration for GED classes begins. “La matrícula empieza en Septiembre sexto,” Diaz says. The phone rings. “No, we don’t offer radiology.”

Conversations in the hallway are the same. “Cómo estás?” “Pretty good, pretty good.” Diaz flips from English to Spanish effortlessly, all day long. Had there been a greeting desk at this community college 25 years ago, there would have been little need to accommodate the 6.6 percent of Morton students who were Latino. Even a decade ago, Latino students were still less than half of the college. Today, Morton has 5,162 students, a 30 percent enrollment jump from just last year. And Latino students, primarily of Mexican descent, are now 74 percent, up from 60 percent last year, of a college that is learning, like Diaz, to switch between English and Spanish all day long.

In parts of Texas or California or Florida and some other urban areas, those percentages might not jump out. What makes them notable is that they are taking place in the suburbs of Chicago, which has seen a huge increase in its Latino population in the last decade. And Morton is not alone in seeing a changing student body. Before Congress enacted an immigration reform law in 1986, which gave amnesty to millions  of undocumented immigrants who then brought family members, Elgin Community College, about 35 miles outside Chicago, had 500 Latino students each year. Now the college has 4,000, and spends $1 million a year on English instruction for those who speak another language at home.

A Changing City and College

Neither Hispanic culture nor higher education jump to mind for most people when they hear “Cicero.” “If you were going to write a story about Cicero from 1945 to today,” says Brent Knight, Morton's president, “I promise you would say something about Al.” Al Capone, that is. “It’s not that he was even such a big deal here,” Knight adds. But Capone reportedly did have enough sway in Cicero that he was able to beat the mayor into a bloody pulp on the steps of City Hall in front of police officers. Cicero mayors since, called “town presidents,” have met with plenty of other problems. The previous town president, Betty Loren-Maltese, had to leave office to go to jail for racketeering, where she was joined by the police chief, who took illegal kickbacks for contracts, and a slew of other city officials. “I guess the movie The Godfather just makes that stuff stick for people,” Knight says.

In a gray suit and turquoise shirt, Knight is dapper. But he leans way back in his chair on the second floor, inviting all-comers to relax -- despite what they may have heard about Cicero. “It must be the movie. I don’t know why,” he says staring out the windows at the landscaping he directed, nearby, the “Imagina lo que puedes hacer!” signs that he designed.

Shortly after he arrived at Morton in July 2003, Knight, who does not speak Spanish, did some of his own housecleaning of officials. One of Morton’s 20 top administrators was Hispanic when Knight crossed the threshold. Two years later, 12 of 20 are Hispanic. “This is a community college,” says Knight, 58, who became the president of Triton Community College, in Illinois ,at the age of 29. “It should reflect the community.”

So did those administrators agree with Knight and walk off into the sunset? How did he get them to leave? “I caused them to not be here anymore,” Knight says. The Godfather indeed? Actually, Knight is directing Morton’s transition into a reflection of the community, which once was predominantly people of Eastern European descent, not by intimidating Morton employees, but by winning their trust. “There’s a long history of distrust of the administration here,” said Steve Ginley, a speech instructor. And when Knight came in and started immediately clearing administrative desks, there was a sense of “what’s going on here?” according to a faculty member who did not want to be named. “But [trust is] starting to come around,” Ginley added. “Brent is 100 percent sincere.”

Change among faculty members, however, has been slow, because some have tenure, and, Knight acknowledges, with few Latinos in graduate school in Illinois, the pool is small. When asked if he wants the faculty -- three of 50 full-time professors are Hispanic -- to become more Hispanic, Knight smiles and says, “The community pays the bills. The college should reflect the community.”

Campus in Motion

Right now, Knight cannot sit still another moment. He hops up from his desk and starts throwing open doors like an explorer hacking through rainforest with a machete. First stop, the library. Two years ago, it was a “dingy maze,” according to one student. Now light floods through glass doors that bear a vertical “LIBRARY,” and “bienvenido" from top to bottom.

“People say, ‘Shouldn’t you have other languages,’” Knight says. “When we get 5 or 10 percent of another demographic, we can do that.” Students are apparently feeling more bienvenido at the library of late. Reference questions topped 3,000 last spring, up from 900 two years ago, according to Rebecca Schreiner, director of library and technology. The library is full of students. Knight rushes up the stairs and points out a painting on the second floor. It’s full of earthy reds, maize, and deep blue. Mexican people carrying corn pass in front of a church. “We commissioned it from an artist,” Ruben Garcia, “in Guadalajara,” Knight says. Near the painting are stick-figure like metal sculptures, “dudes,” Knight calls them, holding computers in their arms that students can use. “We probably should have called them ‘amigos,’” he jokes. “Patent pending.”

Hacking through a few more hallways, Knight stops in front of four flat panel monitors that have been put together to make one large screen on a wall near the front of the main building. There are flat panel screens all over the place at Morton, displaying schedules in English and Spanish. Knight crosses his arms and checks out the screens, like he’s appraising a house from the road. A bubbly cheerleader, obviously Hispanic, flashes across the screens. “Oh, Arlette,” Knight says.

Arlette Resendiz, 21, is not really on the cheerleading squad. “Brent asked me if I would do it,” she says. All of the students he asked to pose for the screen appear to be Hispanic. Morton’s Spanish technological revolution does not stop at faces on flat panels. For the first time this fall, all 5,162 students at Morton will have e-mail addresses, and Esteban Cruz, head of information technology, put all the enrollment, financial aid, and tuition information online, and in Spanish. Outreach online, however, only goes so far.

Jorge Nieves is director of student development. He knows that he needs to make the families of first generation college students feel at ease, so he allows and sometimes encourages a prospective student’s parents to come in. “We call them, ‘the avioneta parents,’” he says. “They hover around.” Some of the families are undocumented immigrants. “Then I refer them to Web-based information,” Nieves said.

Adds Ernesto Mejia, assistant dean of students: “You have to help parents understand it’s OK to take an income hit for this investment.” Illinois is one of eight states that provides in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who have done at least three years of high school in state. Undocumented immigrants are welcome at Morton, such that Knight says he does not need to know how many are enrolled.

Now he’s skipping every other step en route to the third floor, where a few brand new science classrooms just opened and others are being built. In one biology classroom, white tubes dangle their funnel shaped ends down from the ceiling. They look like the periscopes Dr. Seuss might use if he owned a submarine. But here they are the ventilation system for the lab. Judy Bluemer, a biology instructor, is standing beneath one. All of her students speak English, but, like many faculty members, she likes to keep up with her Spanish. “Oh, estudio español,” she says. Many of the faculty members do.

Teaching Teachers and Students

Spanish language and culture courses, which they take with Morton students, are offered to faculty members for free, and they can receive a small stipend if they get good grades. Faculty members in the nursing program, one of Morton’s strongest and most popular, have taken most readily to the Spanish classes. “All of us have taken Spanish,” said Beverly Kawa, a nursing instructor. “Sometimes the students are like, ‘Oh no, I’m paired with a teacher!’”

Nursing instructors have no problem helping students get clinical experience in the handful of local hospitals they work in. “It’s great for us to have translators to help out,” says Pat Parise, a nursing instructor. Four of the five school nurses at local high schools are Morton alums. The pipeline from Morton to local schools is widening.

Elizabeth Romero is the co-director of Morton’s federal Title V grant, given to institutions that serve Hispanic populations. She graduated from Morton East High School, which is now over 90 percent Latino. “I’ve seen the shift from Czech, Polish, Lithuanian,” Romero said. “And I went to high school with the [current Morton East]  principal!” She and Alejandro Padilla, director of the grant, are ramping up recruiting from local high schools. One of the programs they are most proud of is the Bridge Scholars Program. Padilla and Romero, send letters, e-mails, and make calls to high school students with high grade point averages who may not be planning on attending college. They put them through a seven-week “boot camp” to prep them for Morton, and then meet with them constantly. “Intrusive advising,” Padilla calls it, borrowing a term from a colleague.

Last year was the first class, and there was over 90 percent retention, with an average grade-point average of 3.2, of students who went through the boot camp. Last spring, Padilla helped run a workshop that brought in about 300 children – from kindergartners to high-schoolers -- and parents. The point was to get families the information they need about attending college. “We need to get them on campus,” Padilla said. “It’s never too early to get the parents thinking about college. Nobody was turned away from the workshop, but it was clearly aimed at the Hispanic community. Jesus Negrete showed up to sing bilingual ballads about Latinos, education, and the town of Cicero.

Even some of the brightest students Padilla brings in, though, may hardly speak English. Morton has 1,234 ESL students this term, and a few dozen in the Intensive English Program, which began last fall, and gives students 12 hours of instruction a week, from reading The Da Vinci Code to writing research papers, so they can transition to normal English courses.

“I just pray they kept up over the summer,” says Carmen Lind, the non-Spanish-speaking director of IEP, who notes that students switch back to Spanish at home. Those who stop by between classes seem to have kept up. “If I would have gone to English 088, I wouldn’t have been prepared,” says Angelica Aguilar, 18, who took IEP. Aguilar used to “translate” in her head, or think in Spanish and try to translate verbatim on the page. “Nowadays I think mostly in English,” she says. Mario Garcia, 30, a grad of intermediate intensive English was hoping to take the advanced level before moving to other English classes. But the advanced level was cancelled this semester, due to low enrollment, and Garcia is in English 086 with “students more prepared than me,” he says. Garcia has stopped by between classes to talk to Lind, while other students flood the cafeteria.

Thursdays are “Spanish Day,” with burritos and Spanish rice. “I started it three years ago. I just saw a lot of Spanish students,” says Penny Baharopoulos, the cafeteria manager. Grace Perez, 30, is sitting in the cafeteria reading Human Disease. The place is filled with windows that look at the houses across the street, and light, and she “just like[s] the atmosphere.” Knight likes a quote from Ernest Boyer’s College: The Undergraduate Experience in America: “When high school students were asked how they chose their college, 62 percent said that it was mainly by the appearance of the buildings and grounds.” Children's artwork adorns a wall outside the cafeteria. “Carlos the Bug,” by Carlos, fuzzy piping and potato chips on neon green construction paper.

Brent Knight is leaving the building, wearing huge tortoise shell shades. Past a massive wooden meeting table. “That’s a $20,000 table,” he says. “It was made by prison inmates. We got it for $2,000.” The chairs around the table are from Enron’s national office. “Used,” Knight explains. Past Carlos the Bug, past the cafeteria, past the cart that sells “paletas,” -- Mexican popsicles – past the bookstore and its shiny new copies of Lolita and Hamlet, aside stacks of used Deep Rivers, by Jose Maria Arguedas, and creased and crinkled Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano.

Knight bursts through the doors, the sun reflecting off his glasses. He walks quickly around the main building to the north side of campus. “What we have to work on now,” he says, “is student success. That’s the next step.” He’s staring at the base of a wall, where the beginnings of vines -- landscaped, of course -- have climbed about a foot from the ground. “See, we have ivy-covered walls,” Knight says, stealing a glance at the homes just across the street. “They’re small now, but they’ll reach right to those windows pretty soon,” he says, gesturing proudly to the second floor. “They’re trying there. Just give them a year.”


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