Reinventing the Classroom

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Cheryl Hyman left corporate America with a mission to rebuild Chicago’s community college system. And it’s personal.

Facing graduation rates at just 7 percent three years ago, the success of students at City Colleges of Chicago was a fact Chancellor Cheryl Hyman took personally. She did, after all, graduate from the network of Chicago community colleges. Ms. Hyman took over in April 2010, equipped with both the passion and a plan to reinvent the definition of success and education at the community college level.

Today, the graduation rate is up, and the Reinvention initiative seems to be on track. We caught up with the chancellor to get the details.

You surprised many people two years ago when you left the your position as VP at ComEd to join City Colleges. Why the move?
I’m an alumnus of City Colleges of Chicago. I graduated from Olive-Harvey College, then transferred to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). This job gave me the opportunity to come in and try to set up an institution that ensured that every student got the same opportunity I did despite their circumstances. I often say that I left a career to take on a calling.

What are the major goals of the Reinvention plan?
The first is to ensure students here receive more credentials of economic value. Simply put, that means: the credentials you earn…help put you on a pathway toward a career, help you advance in your current career or are transferable to a four-year institution. The second goal is ensuring more students transfer to four-year institutions and start as juniors. The third goal is to increase the outcome for students needing remediation. We have to figure out how to get those students remediated quicker and change the way we delivered remediation. Our fourth goal is to ensure our adult education population completes what they came here for and have a strong bridge into college-level courses.

In the past couple years, how have you seen Reinvention make an impact?
We just reported a 3 percent increase in our graduation rate, which took our graduation rate to 10 percent, a statistic we’re still not comfortable with by any means. And it’s the highest graduation rate that it’s been in a decade. Transfer agreements have been signed with a number of institutions, including my alma mater, IIT, and UIC, DePaul and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Was that an ‘a-ha moment’ for you?
I think we were all a little bit surprised and happy when we finally got the real number of our accomplishment. It was an ‘a-ha’ and the greatest moment because it was an indication what we’re doing is working.

There is a big focus on the skilled labor gap in the country right now. How are City Colleges prepping students for the workforce and skilled labor?
One of our proudest programs launched under Mayor Emanuel…is our College to Careers program. It’s an innovative program where corporate partners work with faculty to create a curriculum relevant to a high growing, fast-paced industry. We’re not trying to be a short order cook. What these partners are doing is helping us shape an industry.

How do you want the education at City Colleges to look in the future?
We studied where 80 percent of the jobs and opportunities will be over the next decade, and those are the areas on which we’re focusing. When you look at 100,000 jobs unfilled with a 10 percent unemployment rate in the Illinois area, someone needs to have a sense of urgency around that. Our program portfolio should be reflective of what is needed in the industries growing to close those 100,000 jobs [gap], and what four-year institutions are looking for.

And your biggest challenge in respect to Reinvention?
When you look at culture, you can make a ton of changes, but people have to buy into those changes and believe in them. And that’s why it was very important to me to set up a process by which the people who are here every day and do the work are actually the ones involved in it, and they see it’s a win-win for everybody.

What has helped to define your leadership at City Colleges?
I can tell you the number one thing that has helped me, and the number one thing that contributes to my leadership, is the team that works with me. I can’t say enough about the dedicated people here. There are six new presidents at City Colleges that are all phenomenal. The vice-chancellors working for me on a day-to-day basis come with strong credentials and backgrounds. I believe for any successful leader, just look behind them at their strong team.


About Margaret Sutherlin

Margaret Sutherlin is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. An experienced and award-winning features writer, she has worked both in newspapers and magazines, and covered a variety of issues, from the arts and politics, to education and business. When she’s not writing, the native Hoosier loves exploring her new home in Chicago.