In a classroom in New York city, three community college students discuss their futures. Andrew, who tried and left the Navy, will pursue a degree in technology. Nick, who had trouble keeping up during COVID, has just been accepted to university where he will study psychology. Mary Alice does not know what she wants to study or do for work, but she believes the school will help her figure it out.
“There are times when I get very down on myself and don’t think I have the energy to keep going,” she said. “But when I come to Guttman, I’m excited because I’m surrounded by people who care about me, and it makes me look forward to my day.”
Helping students like Nick, Andrew, and Mary Alice find their way, and their careers, is part of a revolutionary approach to higher education at the Stella and Charles Guttman Community College. With high-impact practices, experiential learning, and a career preparedness program grounded in sociology and anthropology, there is no school like it in the country for connecting students from vulnerable neighborhoods to the world of work. Since opening its doors in 2012, Guttman’s graduation rates have hovered at 40%, more than twice the national average – up until COVID-19. Now, like all community colleges in the country, Guttman’s enrollment and graduation rates are significantly down, but it is eager to meet that challenge. The school’s story at the precipice of post-COVID America feels a lot like that of its host city—it is proud, resilient, and betting on its assets.
Guttman Community College is located in Midtown, Manhattan, with buildings on either side of the New York Public Library. Bryant Park serves as a sort of non-traditional quad, with students sharing spaces with New Yorkers of every stripe and visitors from around the world. Like everything at Guttman, its location is intentional. Guttman tells its students, “You have a place at the center of everything.” Most of the students are of color, many are immigrants, and nearly all are first generation college students.
Founded in 2012 as “New Community College” within the City University of New York (CUNY), the school was renamed the Stella and Charles Guttman Community College after the foundation of the same name donated $15 million to see what it would take to increase New York City’s community college graduation rate which, in 2012, was about six percent.
Guttman was designed for traditional-aged college students, those just leaving high school, with first-year students attending full-time. Its evidence-based model and small classes support students, often arriving from lower-performing public schools, from admission through graduation and beyond. Even before they start their first year, students enroll in a mandatory bridge program that helps them adjust to college life. There are no remedial courses, just developmental support built into the curriculum. From the beginning, Guttman students are challenged to think about work as a career, not just a job.
“Guttman’s success can be summed up as an intentional focus on achieving success for our most vulnerable communities. Its first-year experience integrates the best pedagogical practices that have resulted in high completion rates amongst first-generation college students. This is due to dedicated faculty and staff who engage in methodologies that positively impact this student population,” said Guttman President Dr. Larry D. Johnson, Jr.
Hailed as an early example of “inclusive excellence,” in 2020, Guttman was ranked the best community college in the nation by Niche.com, just before COVID-19 hit and New York became the country’s epicenter. For a school that rests its success on its high touch, pivoting to online learning during the pandemic was particularly debilitating.
“We built a high-impact college where there are whiteboards everywhere and furniture that moves around and experiential learning and then ‘boom,’ we moved online and suddenly we had a whole set of students that weren’t getting our secret sauce,” said Dr. Nicola Blake, Guttman’s Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs.
Blake acknowledges the recent stop-outs and enrollment decline but does not seem discouraged by it. The Jamaican-born professor turned provost has been with Guttman from the beginning and embodies the grit of its students. She has seen what can be overcome.
Guttman is now back to in-person classes and Blake is one of the point people on Johnson’s strategic planning effort, called “Guttman Forward 2028.” In 2028, new milestones will be realized including accelerated enrollment growth, increased faculty, and the opening of a new building. In the fall of 2023, they hope to have 1100 students, slightly higher than their pre-COVID peak. To get there, they are adjusting the model and doubling down on their secret sauce.
In his literature class, Professor Valdon “Tau” Battice is using Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl to interrogate the ways in which a society might impose on the individual through the framework of a mother-daughter relationship within a colonial society. He engages each student in the small class one by one, calling them by name and asking them to consider concepts such as femininity, social comportment, indigeneity, and culture. If they do not want to offer a comment, he waits and then returns another time with another opportunity. Soon, every member of the class has added something to the discussion.
Battice is among a faculty body dedicated to student-centered, experiential learning; People who “can work anywhere but choose to work here,” Blake said. Guttman’s faculty has more published papers than any other community college in the system but is recruited first and foremost for its teaching. This, too, is by design. Guttman’s Reappointment, Promotion and Tenure (RPT) document puts teaching first before service and scholarship, with teaching far outweighing the other two categories.
Guttman’s faculty members are carefully recruited and predominantly young. They are not averse to disrupting the system by doing things differently. They have spent numerous hours learning culturally responsive pedagogy and are all trained in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), establishing steps within assignments so that all students can succeed. They administer very few tests, choosing instead to conduct project-based learning and problem solving. Until recently, there were no academic departments and no offices, just faculty working across disciplines in open workspaces.
The student affairs team gathered in Guttman’s 8th floor conference room are young, passionate, and collaborative. Their interlocking networks of counselors, peer mentors, Student Success Advocates (SSAs) and career strategists are there to move students towards their goals, whether it is degree attainment, career, or transferring to senior schools. With backgrounds not unlike their students, the team of accomplished professionals emphasizes that the determinants of those outcomes include things like confidence, safety, social and professional capital, and mental health.
Courtney Stevenson is Interim Assistant Dean for Student Affairs. She worked in elementary education before getting a master’s in clinical psychology and coming to Guttman to head up mental health and wellbeing. Her experience teaching 5th grade in a low-socioeconomic urban neighborhood impressed on her the importance of understanding her students as people first.
“Before I could actually teach the content, I needed to peel back all of the personal stuff that the student was walking into the classroom with,” she said. Being able to focus on the wellbeing of young people in an academic setting is what drew her to Guttman.
Stevenson’s student affairs team is clearly in step. In describing their respective areas, they tend to finish one another’s sentences or pick up directly from where a colleague left off. As the Director of Advising and Transfer Support, Victoria Romero oversees the academic scaffolding that keeps Guttman students on track. Born and raised in New York City, she went to public schools before attending a private boarding school upstate through a government funded program.
“My parents always wanted more for me than they had for themselves,” she said. “Education was huge.” After finishing college and getting her master’s in human service administration, Romero, who is currently completing her doctorate in education, returned home hoping to work on behalf of people who she said, “look like me, share my struggles, but may not have been as fortunate.”
Romero describes the proactive advising Guttman students receive. First-year students take a number of mandatory courses as a cohort. They enter learning communities, called “houses,” where they are assigned their SSAs. Instructional teams involving faculty meet regularly to discuss a person’s performance in a number of ways. “While we’re talking with students and celebrating all of their accomplishments, we are also taking a close look at how they are doing, if there’s a point of disengagement, or if we need to bring in other services like wellness,” said Romero.
“The theme song here is ‘You can’t hide,’” said Blake, referring to students, faculty, and staff. Transparency includes knowing when to make changes. “Do we get it perfect? No, but we’re naming it and looking at the data and when we need to make a shift, we shift.”
The flexibility and high touch have paid off: in 2019-2020, Guttman’s transfer rate to CUNY or non-CUNY bachelor degree programs within two years of earning an associate’s degree was 75%.
“My SSA was so effective at helping me find my path and that meant going on to get my degree in English at Hunter College,” said Nichole, a Guttman alumna who is now working at the school. “She walked me through the transfer process and found a backup major for me if it didn’t work out. Even after I was at Hunter, she helped me work through some issues I had with my credits.”
Here, the extra support can make all the difference in a process that is far from seamless.
One of Guttman’s ongoing challenges is fitting its unconventional model into a conventional system with institutional bias about the rigor and preparedness of the junior colleges. This can mean there are disconnects when transferring within CUNY. Chancellor Felix Rodriguez, who previously headed up another of CUNY’s community colleges, is taking this on, and said it has been an unaddressed issue within the system (see Q&A with Matos Rodriguez).
Guttman has a significant percentage of neurodivergent students, most of whom come to the school with an IEP (Independent Education Plan) from their high schools. Luiz Gutierrez is the Assistant Director of AccessABILITY, the office that helps these students become independent self-advocates. Like his colleagues, Gutierrez’ team is part of the network, working with faculty, SSAs, and career strategists on behalf of these students and those with physical disabilities. He points out a major difference between what his team does at Guttman and what happens in most college disabilities offices. “We don’t wait for students to come to us, we go to them,” he said, noting that young people, in particular, have trouble asking for help.
Gutierrez, who is pursuing his second master’s degree, also sees himself in his students. “I was drawn to Guttman because of its model but I’m also an individual,” he said. “I was a student with a disability myself and I saw the benefits that came from a supportive disabilities office.” Gutierrez said being involved in programs like CUNY’s Coalition for Students with Disabilities gave him an invaluable sense of community and he encourages his students to pursue these kinds of activities. “It is an amazing feeling when you know you are not alone and that there are other people going through what you are,” he said.
Everything about Guttman says to its students, “We got you,” but what may be most effective about Guttman’s model is the agency it engenders in students long after it lets go. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way Guttman prepares students for careers. “We tell our students as soon as they come in the door, ‘We are going to start talking about your future now. What are your career goals? You need to start mapping that out,’” said Shaina Davis, Internship Manager at the Center for Career Preparation and Partnerships (CCPP).
At Guttman, career development services go far beyond resume writing and mock interviews. Career mapping means directing students to courses they will need to take, helping them find the right internships and/or professional mentors and pivoting to a new plan if students change their minds. None of this is done in a vacuum. Guttman invites leaders from a variety of industries in to hear what jobs they need and what new jobs might be emerging so that they can match their students’ interests with the demands of the market.
The centerpiece of all this is Guttman’s mandatory, first-year, social science course called Ethnographies of Work (EOW). The course uses methods rooted in sociology and anthropology to teach students how work is actually experienced and how to navigate as a student of color in a predominately white professional world. Blake said the instruction can include everything from understanding concepts like “org charts” and “the glass ceiling,” to learning to speak up in rooms where you are the only person with an accent.
“A LinkedIn profile will not tell you your survivability in a workplace, or if passion meets purpose, or if you really get to do the thing you want to do,” she said.
Students in EOW do field work, analyze data, and study workplace doctrines to understand more broadly about work and their place in it. Professor Karen Williams, who directs the program at Guttman, instructs students to enter workplaces as researchers, observing dynamics that are often overlooked. An auto-ethnographic component allows students to explore their own and their family’s relationship to work. “We ask students to think about the jobs their parents do and their grandparents had and to see themselves as branches of these roots,” she said.
This can be difficult work. More often than not, Guttman families are not in jobs they love, and have historically viewed work as a way to survive. Blake writes about how students unpack this legacy in Learning from “Dirty Jobs:” Reflection on Work in the Classroom. The article presents the context and pedagogy of utilizing notions of “dirty jobs” in the classroom and highlights the discoveries made about theories of work in the process. Students document these discoveries using writing assignments that lead to a better understanding of the concept, “What is Work?”
While Guttman students have community, family and other networks, they often lack access to the networks that so many graduates rely on to ascend in their careers. “Because of systemic inequities that often serve as gatekeepers to networks within professional workplaces, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding or succeeding in jobs they have worked so hard to prepare for,” said Mary Gatta, a former faculty member who taught EOW at Guttman and is now the director of research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Gatta, who has written papers on the program, said programs like these help students seek and create their own networks, along with disrupting existing networks.
Thanks to champions like Blake and Gatta, the EOW model is now being implemented in community colleges throughout the country where similar methods can lead to positive outcomes for other students.
Expanding the circle
If there is one promise that the Guttman visionaries have not yet fulfilled, it is to offer these experiences to a significantly larger number of students, right in New York City. There is no doubt that the pandemic threw this goal off track. Guttman students were disproportionately impacted by COVID and its mitigation in every way, from illness and death in their families to limited workspaces and internet access during quarantine. For many students of varying abilities who had been promised individual attention, online learning just didn’t work.
The pandemic added another barrier for students who had not yet enrolled: Students who had been isolated in high school are in many ways less mature and less eager to join in on the community-based, high impact practices. Others, who may have considered Guttman, have been refocused on hourly work, some of which can yield $25 an hour. Blake acknowledges that as much as COVID impacted Guttman’s enrollment, it was not the only reason the numbers could not be sustained. Even before the pandemic, surveys showed that students were looking for greater flexibility in their schedules. People who had started somewhere else and hoped to try again at Guttman were not allowed to transfer in.
“We realized the model had too many intersecting high-impact practices, which created a barrier for different kinds of students,” said Blake. “We were hyper-focused on students who could be available five days a week, full time, and as a vehicle for social justice, we have to think about who we are excluding.”
This year, Guttman is making another shift. It will soon allow students who have been at other community colleges to transfer in and is appealing to students who work by splitting school hours into intervals that can accommodate jobs. Asked what happens to the high-impact model when the numbers begin to change, Blake said they are all over it. The enrollment growth, plus Guttman’s endowment and federal grant money, will help maintain the ratios of students to coaches and counselors.
Here Is where the story continues. President Johnson explained that “Guttman Forward 2028” has five pillars, each containing six-year key performance indicators in several areas, such as elevating diversity and inclusion; retention strategies; student, staff, and faculty satisfaction; and increasing the enrollment pipeline.
“While I am most excited about each of the five pillars, the one that resonates the most with me is Pillar Number One: Elevate diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” he said. “It is important to me that Guttman is a student-ready and employee-ready institution that welcomes diverse perspectives and encourages academic research and is an institution where all can feel respected and belong.”
Johnson said the true success of Guttman is its students: “They are what make us #GuttmanProud.”