Rio Hondo Community College has been awarded a $2.5-million federal grant to develop better programs for its predominantly minority student body.
About two-thirds of Rio Hondo's students are nonwhite and more than half of its students are the first in their families to attend college.
"No information network exists among their families about how to attend college and what to expect," college spokeswoman Pamela Jo Cox said.
The grant will provide money to create a student development center and a multicultural center on the campus near Whittier.
The student development center will include a tracking system for monitoring students in academic trouble, beefed-up counseling on career placement, financial aid information and computer-based tutoring. The faculty also will be given help in developing better teaching strategies as more is learned about the student body.
The multicultural center will phase in required training for all faculty and staff to increase their awareness of different ethnic groups, increase enrollment of minority students, develop a minority student support network and develop a mentoring program using community leaders.
"It will not only be a physical location, but it will fulfill an advocacy function for minority students and help faculty understand their needs and monitor their progress," said Tony Navarez, assistant dean for social science in charge of developing the multicultural center.
The grant, $500,000 a year for the next five years, is one of the largest of its kind ever awarded to a California college or university, said Victoria Tripp, special assistant to the assistant secretary for post secondary education of the U.S. Department of Education.
The award was based on a 250-page grant proposal by the college's fledgling department of research and planning. The money also will be used establish college fund-raising and community relations programs and to pay for computer systems to support services funded by the grant.
Rio Hondo President Herbert M. Sussman said the time and money for strategic planning to develop these programs is not covered by state funding, which is derived from a formula based on student population. Sussman said colleges that do not have a long-term plan for serving the community are in danger of becoming "maintenance operations."
"We teach as we had been taught, continually operating by looking out the rear-view mirror," Sussman said. "We want to be looking out the windshield with the wipers going so we can see a little more clearly."
Rio Hondo's grant comes under Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965, a section that funds projects and services to meet emerging needs that the government views as part of its national agenda, said Peter Hirsch, executive director of the California Assn. of Community Colleges.
Hirsch said a grant of this size generally means officials believe the proposal would serve as a model for other institutions. A more typical grant would be $1 million over three years, he said.
"(Rio Hondo's figure) is the kind of figure you would expect to see for a major land grant university or a private institution of exceptional renown," Hirsch said.
The grant must be renewed each year and is contingent on the college showing adequate progress on the funded proposal.
Rio Hondo's research and planning department was created 2 1/2 years ago, along with a planning group called GENUS. That group brought together--for the first time--representatives of the faculty, classified employees, the student body, academic administration and college administration.
The college has the equivalent of 7,900 full-time students, but Cox said Rio Hondo serves more than 35,000 students each year who enroll in part-time courses, vocational training and preparation for transfer to complete bachelor's degree studies.
Linda Umbdenstock, director of research and planning at the college, said GENUS serves as an informal think tank. She said it unites the college leadership to analyze its role and effectiveness both on and off campus. Establishing a focus is especially difficult for a community college, which serves such broad interests that there is a temptation to offer every conceivable course or service, she said.
"What you are seeing here is a hub," Umbdenstock said. "We're asking, 'How do you begin to sort that out and preserve quality?' "
College officials hope to answer that question through the grant, which also will be used to create a fund-raising foundation and an alumni association, as well as conduct extensive studies on community needs and image assessment.
"We've been given money to build a house," Cox said. "I can't tell you how many windows or doors there will be, but in five years there will be a house that's integrated and works together."