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EDUCATION

Keeping Success in Check

College of the Canyons is the state leader in enrollment gains, but President Dianne Van Hook has kept growing pains to a minimum while forging bonds with the Santa Clarita community.

December 08, 1999|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Signs of growth are everywhere at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita. Piles of earth mark construction sites. Students bump elbows on walkways. In classrooms, the last person through the door is often lucky to find a desk.

"It's hard to get classes . . . and the parking lot is like the mall during the holidays," said student Christine Halty, 18.

College of the Canyons leads state community colleges in growth. Its enrollment has been exploding for a decade. In the last five years, the student body has grown more than 80%, to 9,600. This year, said Philip Hartley, vice president of instruction, only one other college in the state, tiny Palo Verde in Blythe, can compete with the school's projected growth rate of 23%.

Despite its discomforts, this sustained, relentless growth has molded the Santa Clarita campus into one of the region's most successful community colleges, and one that has drawn millions of dollars in public and private support.

The school is a prime example of how California's funding system for community colleges favors growing suburban campuses over stagnant urban ones, a fact that has long been a sore point for the older, urban institutions.

Although the state's 106 community colleges constitute a single system, they are not all alike, and students select accordingly. As a result, schools such as those in the Los Angeles district lose thousands of students yearly to well-heeled suburban rivals such as College of the Canyons.

The Santa Clarita school has won praise from state officials for its management. Dianne G. Van Hook, who serves as superintendent and president, recently won a statewide leadership award for outreach and is one of the longest-tenured community college presidents in the state.

Hired 12 years ago as a young, unknown dean with no executive experience, Van Hook has endured in a job typically so fraught with conflict that three-year terms are considered normal elsewhere.

A Delicate Balance

Leading a community college is not easy. Presidents are hemmed in by tight budgets. They govern in part by consensus, allowing everyone from tenured professors to the campus gardener to have a say. At the same time, they often inherit fractious union-management relationships.

As a result, presidents walk a fine line--trying to get everyone to agree on one hand while gripping the purse strings with the other. Not surprisingly, they frequently exhaust everyone's goodwill.

But Van Hook is liked even by those most likely to be critical, such as union leaders. "Since Dianne Van Hook has become president, this college has moved," said Lea Templer, president of the school's faculty association. "She sees the future."

A tall, brightly dressed woman with a cascade of blond hair, Van Hook seems to never miss a chance to plug the college. She is fond of the word "vision" and uses it often.

Surrounded by the trappings of college sports teams, a sparkly cat brooch pinned to her jacket, she paused in a recent interview to consider her own management style. "It's Psychology 101," she said, and then leaned forward, ticking off a management how-to list so simple it almost seems subversive.

"Look at what most people want," she said. "They want to make a difference. They want security. They want to learn and develop. They want to go to work at a place where people joke and smile. And they want to know they are measuring up."

Adherence to this formula, said Van Hook, explains everything from the bowls of candy on office desks at the school to the lobbying she has done in Sacramento for more money.

For example, when state officials underestimated the college's enrollment growth, Van Hook invited a group of them on a helicopter tour of the Santa Clarita Valley to see the new subdivisions.

Community colleges tend to have difficulty planning as far ahead as the next semester. But in the early 1990s, confronted with growing enrollment and no additional funds, College of the Canyons embarked on a long-term effort to manage and control growth without exhausting reserves.

Now, planning has become a habit. When a surge in employment statewide improved tax revenues, the school was in a position to reap the benefits: Plans were already in place for a host of new programs, Van Hook said.

But perhaps the school's most important success has been in outreach. Beginning with Van Hook's hiring, College of the Canyons has concentrated on getting support from sources other than the state, including charitable contributions, grants and training partnerships with businesses.

In part, the effort was a response to the overwhelming enrollment demand.

The high demand for core classes such as English was absorbing the college's resources, and it was becoming apparent that more specialized programs would require outside funds. At the same time, the college was anxious to prevent ill will over limited class offerings.

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