Two years after Compton College was stripped of its accreditation, a multimillion-dollar effort is underway to reestablish the two-year school as an institution of higher learning.
El Camino College, which has assumed management of Compton, has spent $41 million in local bond money to renovate facilities and recently hired three new deans to revamp a threadbare curriculum. The vocational division, which offered 12 programs in practical skills, such as welding and cosmetology, has added two new disciplines -- aerospace and robotics.
When Compton lost its accreditation in 2006, the campus was crumbling under the pressure of state audits that unearthed financial fraud, fake enrollments and missing computer equipment. El Camino in nearby Torrance stepped in, agreeing to oversee the budget while working with a state-appointed special trustee.
Officially, Compton College no longer exists. It's a satellite of El Camino and now goes by the lengthy name of El Camino College Compton Community Education Center.
Many at El Camino cautioned their administration against rushing to the aid of Compton. Some students were worried that they would not have a choice between campuses, while others feared the location, according to Thomas Fallo, president of El Camino.
But Fallo was more concerned that the loss of a college would harm the quality of life in Compton and neighboring communities. He said he did not hesitate to encourage a skeptical Board of Trustees to unilaterally support a partnership with the troubled school.
A lingering stereotype continues to haunt the Compton campus. Rob Pitts, 24, the student body president, said some members of the El Camino administration brought negative impressions with them to the school.
"I have to make sure" that people "are treated like students, not inner-city hoodlums," he said. "We have a stereotype that we're thugs or criminals, but we're here for a reason."
After El Camino assumed control, the college entered what Ann Garten, spokeswoman for El Camino, called the triage stage. Compton's facilities were in bad shape, with leaky roofs and cracked walls. Fallo noticed that students in the area did not seek out other community colleges as an alternative to Compton. They just stopped going to college.
But recent experiences of two Compton residents -- Brian Turner, 22, and his sister, Twana Turner, 24 -- are more encouraging.
Four years ago, they went to Compton College hoping to enroll for the fall term. They found annoyed and confused students waiting in a six-hour registration line and academic advisors who weren't familiar with graduation requirements. Despite a family connection to the school -- their father is the men's basketball coach -- they got jobs at a mall instead.
But when El Camino took over, the siblings decided to give the institution a second chance.
"When I came here two years ago, all I did was complain and complain," Brian Turner said. "But now it's starting to feel like a campus, like a university."
Several El Camino administrators said that resuscitating the campus proved beneficial to El Camino as well, which was able to expand its nursing program to include a licensed vocational nursing department.
Now El Camino has one of the largest nursing programs in the state, according to Fallo. Students go back and forth between the two campuses, taking advantage of small class sizes in Compton and high-tech labs at El Camino.
Cosmetic upgrades also have given the campus a fresh feel. The renovated gym smells like a new car. Once comparable to an urban boxing center, the interior sparkles with $100,000 of improvements over the exposed plumbing and dim lighting of previous years, said Rodney Murray, dean of vocational education.
Murray was appointed in June along with Susan Devers, dean of academic programs and Jane Harmon, dean of academic affairs.
The cafeteria had been closed so long that even Murray, a faculty member since 1994, couldn't remember the last time it was open. But he did remember that it had a leaky roof and poor refrigeration.
Today the cafeteria sparkles with new stainless steel appliances. Hamburgers and French fries sizzle on display, while ice cream stays cold near candy and sodas. A projector blares MTV in an adjoining lounge.
"We want to encourage students to build a relationship with the institution, making this a second home," Devers said.
School officials say that from last fall to this year, enrollment has increased from 3,400 to 4,600 -- a jump of 33%.
Administrators partly credit the increase to improved ties between the college and the community, which was initially cynical about the takeover. Provost Lawrence Cox regularly holds meetings with residents and local businesses to keep the city updated on campus affairs.
Other innovations continue. The college recently poured $100,000 from its general fund toward faculty development. Professors are now expected to include learning objectives on their syllabus, something that was not mandatory previously.
Cox is also pushing for the development of "smart classrooms" equipped with current technology to test whether students understand a lesson.
"If students are having trouble, we need to intervene right then," Cox said. "We don't need to wait until the middle of the semester when they're lost or at the end of the semester when they've failed."
Murray is reaching out to the business community for support. He hopes to form partnerships between the college's vocational schools and the city of Compton's professional companies.
Compton could regain accreditation in 2013 at the earliest, officials estimated. Even though some Compton residents were initially dismayed at the loss of the school's independence, many are now hopeful that it is on the road to redemption.
"The mood is starting to change," Fallo said. "I have seen more of the students and community coming together to reach the understanding that, through time, this will work."