Until four years ago, Steve Copeland was the chief operating officer for a Lawrence nonprofit with million-dollar revenues.
Now, the 50-year-old North Kansas City resident sports a white apron and chef’s cap. He can be found two days a week pressing pie crust into tart tins in an industrial-size laboratory kitchen at Johnson County Community College.
“I’m very happy here,” Copeland said, flashing a broad smile and wiping his hands across his apron.
He’s clearly quite comfortable in the kitchen, thanks to four years in JCCC’s award-winning and grueling hospitality and culinary arts program. After he walked away from his desk job in 2008 he spent three years in the JCCC chef’s apprentice program. This year, after making about $8.50 an hour at his first cooking jobs in several area restaurants, he decided he would add pastry preparation to his skills.
Like other students in the program, Copeland is in class on the Overland Park campus about twice a week. He spends the rest of his time working full-time as the pastry chef at Gram & Dun on the Country Club Plaza.
“I’m making a lot more than $8.50 an hour now,” Copeland said.
This is what Johnson County Community College does: It gets its students to work.
The college’s sprawling campus in Overland Park and satellites throughout the county are focused on preparing students to fill jobs in the community. Less than half of its students are new high school graduates; many are older students in the midst of a career change. Some are looking to improve job performance with skill enhancement or are returning to school to complete a degree after raising a family.
With its own Broadway-caliber performance hall, contemporary art museum, award-winning restaurant and campus farm, the college is listed among the 18 most prominent community colleges in the nation.
And now as Johnson County Community College celebrates its 40th anniversary at its current location, it is undergoing a transition. President Terry Calaway last month announced his retirement after five years leading the community college.
As he leaves, he is looking to the college’s future. JCCC — with the largest undergraduate enrollment of any college or university in Kansas and about 1,000 full-time faculty — is ready now “to move into its next phase as more of a thought leader for the community.”
He doesn’t see the school drifting away from its bread and butter of preparing students for work, but he would like to see JCCC used for its expert knowledge, just as four-year universities are.
“We just need to be more assertive about telling our story.”
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The story starts, like so many in Johnson County, in the 1960s. It began with a citizens’ committee appointed by the County Commission to weigh the community sentiment for building what at that time was called a junior college. In 1967 Johnson County voters approved creation of a junior college district by nearly a 3-1 ratio and elected the first six-member board of trustees. About 200 acres in south Overland Park was acquired for about $3,000 an acre.
Not everyone supported the idea. Skeptics worried that the college was planned for too far south — at what then was 111th Street (changed to College Boulevard) and Quivira Road — out in the middle of nowhere.
In 1968 the college got $135,000 from the Kansas Legislature: seed money that started bulldozers moving dirt and brought construction crews on site.
The next summer voters agreed to support a $12.9 million bond issue to pay for the college project. For the next three years, while the school was being constructed, students were spread around the county attending classes in leased space that included high schools, elementary schools, churches and storefronts mostly in Merriam.
Over time, the college grew into a sprawling campus and is still growing. The latest evidence of that is the new $12 million culinary and hospitality academy building under construction on the eastern side of the campus. Nearly two years ago the JCCC trustees challenged the school’s foundation to raise $3 million in a year and half. The deal was that if they did it, then trustees would consider building a new hospitality and culinary arts center. A $750,000 gift from former Kansas Sen. David Wysong and his wife, Kathy, helped the school reach the goal.
In its first year, 1,380 students were enrolled at JCCC. By the time the college opened in 1972 at its current location, JCCC had 3,600 students enrolled, with a 100 full-time faculty. These days, the school has more than 20,000 credited students and about 15,000 continuing education students enrolled each semester.
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About one in five of the seniors who graduate from high school in Johnson County start their higher education at JCCC.
“Students who start out here and get an associate’s degree are more likely to go on and get their bachelor’s degree than if they had started at a four-year university,” Calaway said.
But when the economy tanked about four years ago, the demand for financial help boomed.
“The number of students who need and qualify for financial aid increased 40 percent in the last five years alone,” said Dennis Day, vice president of student success.
In response to increased need, the Johnson County Community College Foundation — which has more than $16 million in endowment and total assets of $26 million — stepped in to help financially strapped scholars.
“Between 2009 and 2011, scholarship requests tripled from approximately 1,000 requests to 3,000 requests,” said Kate Allen, executive director of institutional advancement for JCCC. “Meeting this need has always been a major initiative for the JCCC foundation.”
Last year the foundation provided $798,362 in scholarships to 794 students, up more than a quarter million dollars from 2008.
Tuition for county residents had increased $6 per credit hour from $75 per credit hour in 2010 to $81 in 2011. It went up another $3 this year.
Even with the tuition increase, it makes good financial sense, students said, to get two years of course work and an associate’s degree at JCCC. At $84 a credit hour for Johnson County residents, it is a fraction of the $222.40 per credit hour at Kansas State University or $293 per credit hour at the University of Kansas.
Low tuition has helped boost enrollment — as have the more than 100 transfer agreements JCCC has that allow students from outside the county and the state to take some courses at JCCC and pay in-state tuition and allow JCCC students to transfer into classes outside the state but pay in-state tuition.
Students come from all over the Kansas City metro area, out of state and from other nations to attend the community college.
Mayla Kritski came from Brazil seven years ago with her husband, who was enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Kansas.
“I wanted to learn English,” Kritski said. She figured that classes at the community college would help. She enrolled in the chef apprentice program at JCCC and did an internship in the community college’s kitchen. Now, speaking fluent, flawless English, Kritski has a job in charge of desserts at 715 Restaurant in Lawrence.
“I think what you learn here is work ethic,” Kritski said. “You can’t learn that just sitting in a classroom. But when you are done here — done learning while working in the industry — there are people in the industry who want you because they know you have that.”
A big part of the school’s success, Calaway said, is the faculty-to-student relationships that are formed and the remedial safety nets extended that make the difference for student success.
“Faculty here focuses on teaching, not research,” Calaway said. “It’s a community.”
About 80 of the college’s professors have doctorate degrees. On average, faculty members have spent about nine years on the campus, collecting salaries that range from $51,000 to $98,250 a year.
Many of the college’s instructors come right from the industry they prepare students for. When designing course requirements, they know from doing what it takes to make it in their industry’s work-a-day world.
Consider the curriculum developed by master chefs teaching hospitality and culinary arts. Before students are awarded an associate’s degree in either food and beverage or hotel lodging management, they spend 6,000 hours interning in the field, said Ona Ashley, executive director of the hospitality program.
Those students make career-long connections in restaurant kitchens across the metro area.
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And take Stu Shafer, a sociology professor who also teaches courses in sustainable agriculture to students learning through working a campus farm. He lives on his own working farm.
While JCCC is known across the country for its culinary program, it also is fast developing a reputation as an innovator in campus sustainability efforts. Its Center for Sustainability is responsible for all sustainable efforts on the campus, from farming produce and turning kitchen waste into fertilizer, to composting and recycling plastics, glass, aluminum and paper.
Particularly innovative is the school’s farm-to-table program.
A two-acre farm is tucked away on the back northeast corner of the campus behind the school’s athletic fields. Even on a nippy fall day, students, bundled up in sweatshirts and jackets, puttered around in the rows of vegetables, tending to the crop — including sweet potatoes, peppers, eggplant, onion seed, spinach and a hardy, dark-green kale.
The farm is planted and worked by horticulture science students all year round. Culinary students prepare produce picked from the campus farm. What’s not cooked at the school is sold to the community, and money raised from the farmed food goes back into helping support the horticulture and campus sustainability program.
Students in the sustainable agricultural entrepreneurship certificate program spend much of their time outside the classroom — literally, in the field. They’re required to complete three semesters of a practicum, learning a broad range of tasks facing the market farmer — planning, planting, harvesting, delivering, marketing, selling and bookkeeping, said Mike Ryan, the campus farm and community outreach manager.
Just down the hill, south of the farm, is JCCC’s Horticulture Science Center, identifiable by the flowering-plant-filled walkway that leads up to its giant, heavy wooden front doors. Through the doors, tropical greenery drips from the ceiling and walls of the center’s lobby, and the earthy smell of healthy soil wafts out from the center’s commercial greenhouse.
JCCC has had a sustainable agriculture program since 2008.
Ryan, 31, from Leavenworth County and one of the first graduates of the program, was hired two years ago to run the four-season farm program.
Ryan majored in English at KU, and then decided he needed a job getting his hands dirty. He enrolled at JCCC, a move that led him to a job he said he “absolutely loves.”
Many of the students he works with on the farm fit today’s description of a community college student. They want to change their life’s direction, start a small farm, orchard, floral design business, go into landscaping or improve agricultural skills with sustainability techniques.
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JCCC has not been immune to the economic reality of the past few years. Like other institutions of higher learning, JCCC has had to make significant cutbacks in spending in the last few years.
“We came through this very difficult economic time filling every faculty vacancy,” Calaway said. “We cut between 12 and 13 million dollars out of our budget over the last three or four years. We cut administrative positions. We traded three or four vice president positions for faculty positions. What we did was make a decision while asking ourselves, ‘What impacts students and learning?’ ”
Even so, the campus opened a new facility last year on land donated to the school by Olathe Medical Center. JCCC’s new Olathe facility built adjacent to the hospital includes state-of-the-art equipment for training nurses. The two-year nursing program at JCCC is so highly sought after that students like Tina Gammon of Eudora have waited as long as three years to get in.
Key to the nursing program is the simulation center located in the Olathe building. Students surround a dummy posed as a child with a diabetic problem. The dummy is lying in a hospital bed in one of the four simulation rooms at the center. An instructor behind a one-way glass watches students and programs the dummy to show certain signs of illness. The instructor talks into a microphone, and on the other side of the glass students hear the voice of a sick child complaining of pain and asking questions.
Students are graded on how they handle the patient and the neurotic mother (another student) in the room.
“This is as close as you can ever get to a patient in a hospital,” said professor Ginny Radom. “It is an environment where they learn and it is safe.”
Students leave the program state certified to do urgent care or long-term care, work in a doctor’s office or make home healthcare visits.
“There is definitely a need for this skill in the community,” Radom said.
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Getting students ready for work may be its primary mission, but the community college also serves as a cultural center in Johnson County, Calaway said.
The Carlsen Center, which opened in the fall of 1990, and the Nerman Museum, 41,000 square feet of contemporary art gallery space that opened on the campus five years ago, provide that.
The Nerman, a minimal/modernist building constructed of Kansas limestone mined just west of the campus, is the first structure on the campus not done in red brick. Like the Carlsen, it was built with a combination of public and privately donated funds from many of the Kansas City area’s most prominent philanthropists.
Carlsen, named for JCCC former president Chuck Carlsen, was originally called the Cultural Education Center, a $21 million arts complex with four theaters and a total of about 2,000 seats. In the more than 20 years since it opened, upwards of 1.3 million people have passed through the center’s doors, said Emily Behrmann, center general manager.
“I would say that the fact that these facilities exist on this campus differentiates us from most community colleges in the country,” Behrmann said. “You just don’t find facilities of this caliber on most community college campuses.”
In fact, in 2006 the school was praised nationally as one of the top 10 most art-filled campuses in the country — and it was the only community college among those recognized.
Art is displayed on walls through the halls of every one of the campus’ 20 buildings and in the Nerman. Of the 1,000 works exhibited in the museum, 30 percent are by artists with a connection to the Kansas City area.
“We have people from all over the world to visit the Nerman,” said Bruce Hartman, executive director of the museum at JCCC. “We want to affect students and the community. Here at Johnson County we want to encourage people and let them know that this exposure is a lifelong opportunity that is going to enrich their lives forever.”
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It is the college’s excellence in so many areas — from the cultural to blue-collar work programs like its railroad science training academy — that gives Calaway confidence in the college’s future as an intellectual center for the community.
JCCC should be tapped as a resource for “dynamic ways to influence technology, community development, and for growing business,” he said.
“We certainly have the talent here.”
To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org