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community college coaches and graduation
Men’s basketball head coach Justin Labagh (center) and assistant coach Tom McNichol go over plays during a time out at a game against De Anza College at City College of San Francisco’s Wellness Center on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2009. (Photo by Ramsey El-Qare)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a former basketball player, but it wasn’t the grace of reverse lay-ups and the thrill of slam dunks that captivated him during March Madness. Instead, Duncan tried to focus attention on the poor academic performance and abysmal graduation rates of Division I basketball players. Duncan proposed that teams with graduation rates under 40 percent be banned from postseason play.

Helping players pass their courses is an even greater challenge for the coaches of community college athletes, who are focused on keeping team members on top of their game, both in classrooms and on the court. April Dembosky, who won a Hechinger Institute “Covering America, Covering Community Colleges” fellowship last year, spent time with community college coaches and players at the City College of San Francisco and at Consumnes River College in Sacramento, California.

Community college students are 36 percent less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than similar students who started at four-year colleges, according to a recent study. About half drop out before their second year.

President Barack Obama wants community colleges to increase their graduation rates by 50 percent. Basketball coaches at community colleges want to give players who may have had trouble in high school a second chance. Here’s how they do it at City College of San Francisco, in their own words:

community college coaches and graduation

JUSTIN LABAGH, full-time faculty member in physical education and head coach, men’s basketball team, City College of San Francisco:

“The types of players we normally get are kids who are good enough to go to Division 1.  Either they don’t pass the SAT or don’t have enough core courses to qualify and pass the NCAA clearinghouse. So they come to junior college to obtain their AA (associate’s degree) and they go on to Division 1 or Division 2.

Seventy percent of my job is just navigating these kids through junior college. The bulk of kids we get are missing the building blocks academically… So it’s just organizing them and holding them accountable, talking to teachers. Basketball is only 30 percent.

If a guy doesn’t want to go to school, we have to figure out why. Usually it’s because they get behind. We have a saying, ‘let’s take care of it on the front end, so we don’t have to fix things on the back end.’ We use that on the basketball court, too. The front end is where these guys screwed up. They came out their senior year and their sophomore grades don’t let them have a chance at school. So let’s take care of things on front end in your junior college years. And most of these guys get it, they take advantage of it.

The kids we do get, I’d say 70 to 80 percent of them, are the first in their family attending college. It’s new to everybody. They know nothing about college when they walk in the door. When they walk in, we have to explain to them, you don’t have first through seventh period. You have a lot of free time to manage. No one’s explained this to them. It’s so new to them … If there’s a paper, we can give them a skeleton, teach them how to format a three-page paper. We’ll do some of that stuff. Another way is making sure these guys are in the right classes. A lot of guys come and take remedial classes and, if they’re not on track, they don’t have much to show for …we organize them … We’re more than counselors.”

community college coaches and graduation

ADAM D’AQUISTO, full-time faculty member in physical education and assistant coach, men’s basketball team, City College of San Francisco:

“Here the players need a lot. They need everything. They need shoes and clothes and food and guidance, they need counseling. A lot of them don’t have much of anything and are just trying to get by and hoping basketball is a way to get them at least a college education. It’s our way of seeing it and pitching it to them. What we stress with our guys here, when they’re in the dregs, the financial aid checks run out – stick with it. And you’ll have two years of your life fully paid for and that will open doors for the rest of your life.

A lot of these guys have been going it the wrong way for 18, 19 years. You try to correct personality traits, habits, whatever it may be, we only put up with so much. Right now, we have the best group in terms of not having to hunt them down and do class checks. We used to spend half the day doing class checks, poking our head in and making sure they’re there. The good thing is we’re allowed to punish them through physical pain. Our freshmen are running miles. In the fall semester, you miss a class, it’s three miles. You miss another class, it might be three miles, it might be five. Another misses a class, well now, it might be 6 a.m. that you are running miles.

community college coaches and graduation

TOM MCNICHOL, full-time faculty member in the ESL Department and assistant coach, men’s basketball team, City College of San Francisco:

“Our guys come really unprepared for college. It takes a while to realize books are on reserve in the library. The guys we get right from high school, it takes them a while because it wasn’t cool in high school to ask for help. They bring that over with them. We have to get it into their heads, ‘hey, it’s good to ask for help.’ That’s part of our job, to get them to ask for help. If they have a paper, I’ll read it and say ‘this is a good start.’ Or ‘you need to put quotations in here or citations’ … Or I’ll give them an outline and say: ‘Now write it.’

They use my computer all the time to write their papers because they feel self-conscious sitting in the library. Sometimes they feel too embarrassed to go and ask for help. Some of the tutors are intimidated by our guys. They’re big, they wear hoods and baggy pants. That’s why we have an athletic lab here, inside this building. And they have to go. They have to do three hours a week. And they can’t play in our games unless they do their three hours of study hall.”

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