A City College of San Francisco administrator’s move to cancel a labor-focused performance class earlier this month has drawn the ire of labor leaders and some two dozen students who had planned to enroll.
More than a dozen former and would-be students of the course — Work Tales – Performance Workshop — flooded a Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 25 to urge the college’s leadership to reinstate the class, which they said had helped them gain confidence, develop vital language and job skills and build a community amongst each other.
“They canceled a class that students wanted to take and they argued that it was in the interest of the students,” said San Francisco Labor Council President Mike Casey, who has urged the college to reinstate the class. “What kind of logic is that?”
Despite the expressed interest from 25 students in taking the class, it was canceled a week prior to the official start of the Spring semester. Only eight students had officially enrolled at the time of the cancellation, according to Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Tom Boegel.
The course also failed to meet certain academic requirements, including English language instruction, as a much of the class is taught in Spanish.
“The class was not listed as a class to be taught in Spanish,” said CCSF spokesperson Jeff Hamilton. “So, if we have advertised a class to be available in English, we have to teach it in English.”
Jill Yee, the City College dean who called for the cancellation, directed the San Francisco Examiner’s inquiries to Hamilton.
“[Work Tales] was one of about two dozen class sections canceled … due to low demonstrated enrollment,” said Hamilton in a statement on Jan. 27. “Canceling classes with low enrollment prior to the beginning of the semester provides the college the opportunity to add sections in areas where students are on waiting lists, and ensures that the few affected students have an opportunity to find alternative classes.”
In emails shared with the Examiner, Yee described low enrollment to be an “ongoing problem” with the college’s Labor and Community Studies Department. She also accused department chair Bill Shields, who teaches the Work Tales course, of coaxing “students to take your class to avoid cancellation.”
But at least two students who have taken the class in the past and had planned to re-enroll said that they did so voluntarily.
Betsy Cardenas took the course last semester and said she planned to enroll again to “support my colleagues.” She recently found employment as a domestic worker and has encouraged other women who work alongside her to participate.
“Every single Monday, [the class] was full, and we had to find chairs for people to sit down,” Cardenas said.
Yee also expressed concerns that the class, which drew mostly female students — many of whom were immigrants and Latinas — and was taught largely in Spanish, was not beneficial for the students, many of whom are native Spanish speakers.
“It is highly questionable if these students have the English skills to take a three unit, transferable credit course, as you continue to definitely teach [the class] in Spanish,” Yee wrote in an email.
Shields said he requested an English Second Language teacher to be embedded in the course to quell Yee’s concerns but that the request had not yet been approved as of Friday.
Several of the courses’ former students took issue with the college’s determination that the class did not serve them.
“I think it’s very unfair and racist,” said Cardenas. “A lot of people [in the class] speak English. They are stereotyping us, just like Trump is doing. We are not all the same, and everyone is there for different reasons.”
Historically, the course is built on partnerships with worker rights groups and labor unions, such as the San Francisco Day Labor Program and La Colectiva de Mujeres. Shields has taught the course in credit and non-credit variations for the better part of a decade.
These community collaborations have resulted in stage productions that were “well-received,” according to Shields.
The class has largely drawn members from La Colectiva, a worker-run collective that serves to empower immigrant women by connecting them to resources and jobs.
Taught in storytelling format, the class involves students sharing stories of their lives; topics include immigration, language and social and economic challenges. It’s purpose is to empower and connect the students through song and performed theater about working-class life, according to Shields.
Those who have taken the class attested to its success.
“When I got here from Mexico City, I had many problems: divorced, no money. I felt very bad and on the floor,” said Lourdes Dobarganes. “Mr. Bill told me to write my story, and I cried a lot. We came from countries that have much suffering. We need some people to hear us, to understand us.”
Less than two weeks before spring classes were set to begin Jan. 16 — and days before the enrollment period officially concluded — Yee directed Shields to cancel the class, citing low enrollment and the class’ failure to adequately serve the students who had enrolled.
On Jan. 8, a week before the first day of classes, only eight students had officially enrolled in the class, but dozens more were planning to do so, according to Shields.
“I had about [eight] students enrolled and [Yee’s] target figure was 10,” Shields said. “We emailed her and said we have 25 other students interested, that they were in process of enrolling.”
On Jan. 4, Yee first instructed Shields to cancel the class despite his repeated requests to allow students the opportunity to enroll throughout the registration period.
“We usually have a two-week registration period after the semester starts, so the end of that would have been Jan. 29, and there’s a late period to add after that,” Shields. “She was way early.”
Tim Killikelly, president of City College’s faculty union, AFT 2121, said the class was “prematurely cut out of the program,” as classes are “historically given at least some opportunity to grow.”
“Twenty-five more people expressed some kind of interested — if even half of those people would have enrolled, you would have had more than enough to have a class,” Killikelly said.
The decision also angered labor leaders, who asserted that City College’s labor studies program is not given the same value as other departments.
“There seems to be a strong administrative push not to provide those resource and close the door on a group of low-income immigrant women who don’t have access to many resources,” said La Colectiva’s director, Antonio Aguilera.
Casey, of the San Francisco Labor Council, said a number of community organizations as well as The City’s labor movement “did heavy lifting” to push for the Free City program, which since the fall semester has waived tuition for San Francisco residents. The college was also supported by the labor community when it faced the near loss of its accreditation in 2013, he said.
“When it comes to serving that very community who made [Free City] happen, they ignore us and cancel our classes,” Casey said.
Shields and his students said they will continue to push for the class’ reinstatement. CCSF leadership insists it followed guidelines established in a collective bargaining agreement with its faculty union in canceling the class.
The agreement establishes a minimum class size of 20 students, and because the Work Tales class is “not a required course for the Labor and Community Studies major or any other certificate or degree program at the college,” it does not qualify for an exception, according to Boegel.
Boegel added that 31 other credit classes were canceled due to low-enrollment in the spring semester while 143 credit classes to the schedule in areas of high demand.
“Ultimately, [the process of schedule maintenance] allows us to serve more students — we’re serving 2,000 students with the credit classes we’ve added, compared to 124 students affected by low-enrollment cancellations,” he said.