When the staff at Harold Washington College realized recently that many on the campus didn’t know what the school’s connection to the former mayor was, they promptly put up photos of him in the lobby and commissioned a memorial.
While that may seem a trivial move for a community college with more than 19,000 full- and part-time students, it was one of the first and most noticeable changes as the school launched into an intensive review process to renew its accreditation.
The process dissected the 145-word mission statement of the college, finding among other things that it was too long and many people didn’t know its key points – an issue of wordsmithing, college president John Wozniak says.
But keeping students aware of Washington’s legacy of encouraging diversity and open government is now a more prominent effort at the school, he says.
“It’s going to have to be an ongoing thing to the extent that, and this always happens, there are some faculty who are more invested than others,” Wozniak says.
The self-evaluation report, while dense and jargon-laden, gives a school a roadmap to follow as it looks to tweak its programs. Rather than waiting and reacting to an outside group's assessment, a school can begin fixing problem areas it finds in the course of writing the report.
The 250-page self-evaluation analyzed nearly every aspect of the college – enrollment, remedial education, graduation and completion rates, technology use and counseling resources, among many other areas.
Following a visit last month from the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission, Harold Washington was tentatively granted a 10-year accreditation period, the longest length of time given. The college also does not have to file any follow-up reports in that period, the best possible outcome, Wozniak says.
That doesn’t mean that the commission won’t raise some issues, though. The previous approval of Harold Washington, given in 1998, included 20 concerns that accrediting officials raised with the school.
In the coming months, the Higher Learning Commission will likely issue its own findings and recommendations, officials there say.
The last time around, in 1998, the Higher Learning Commission raised concerns with how the school did its accounting, as well as its “fragmented” student services that sometimes left students in a lurch waiting for counseling and advising.
The majority of the issues related to two programs the college dissolved in 2007.
The most recent self-study report, which the college presented to the Higher Learning Commission earlier this year, includes a total of 62 self-identified strengths, 26 “challenges,” and 19 resulting recommendations.
The weak spots cover a range of issues, but several themes emerge. One of the most prominent is a problem the college has evaluating how well its programs are working.
“That is a common theme because if you think about holding up a mirror, it’s the only way to answer the question, OK, this is your mission, are you following it and are you what you say you are?” Wozniak says.
For example, two surveys of student success rates, conducted in 2003 and 2006, ended up providing only limited data because of how the surveys were designed.
Harold Washington has a growing service learning program, in which students in some classes volunteer with organizations as part of their coursework – but the college has not measured how well those programs are working.
Similarly, the student services office surveys graduates to see what they think of its offerings, but it does not survey currently enrolled students.
Another big issue across the college is assessing what students are learning. That means more than just looking at test scores, Wozniak says.
“You want to make sure that students get out of your school with critical thinking skills,” Wozniak says. “What do you build into a (political science) course, a humanities course, a nursing course, to improve their critical thinking skills?”
Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.