The Justice Academy is an effort to attract economically and culturally diverse students who express an interest in studying criminal justice. The dual admission program offered by the Justice Academy provides accessible academic pathways leading from associate degree study to a bachelor’s degree. Justice Academy students aspire to careers in criminal justice, forensic science and forensic financial analysis. Some students choose this path because they lack the credentials, have limited financial resources, are more comfortable entering a college in their own community, or simply never considered applying to a four-year college.
It is common to hear new professors, graduate student teachers, and even seasoned faculty lament how unprepared community college students are for their course work. This reality is supported by data, which show that 82 percent of community college students must engage in some remedial course work to prepare them for college-level classes. Many students will continue to access academic support services throughout their college careers.
To make matters more difficult, many community college students are desperately trying to stay afloat while struggling to balance school, work, and family obligations. The demographics of community college students in New York City differ from one campus to the next, but many are first-generation college students (48 percent), have household incomes under $20,000 (46 percent), are born outside the U.S. (44 percent), and speak a native language other than English (46 percent).
Nationally, more and more community college students aspire to higher-level degrees. Yet at the same time that more students are seeking advanced degrees, the number of students who actually transfer to a four-year colleges and earn a degree within five years has been shrinking.
The Justice Academy is a response to the need for initiatives that support and retain students, so new professors are tasked with developing unique curricula that are challenging while still recognizing the social, economic, and educational diversity of our students’ backgrounds. For these students to reach their academic and professional potential, their instructors and college community must first reach them.
Part of the joy of teaching in a community college is seeing tremendous improvement in students’ performance and actually helping people change their lives for the better. The student body of the Justice Academy is strengthened by its many differences in academic experience, race, gender, identity, and ethnicity.
Among CUNY’s six community colleges, there are some marked contrasts from one campus to the next, as outlined in the table below. At Bronx Community College, for instance, the majority of students are Hispanic; at Kingsborough there are nearly twice as many black students as Latino students. And while the predominant ethnic culture at Bronx Community College is Hispanic, BCC students hail from 109 different countries.
Ethnic Profile of CUNY Community College Students (2013)
Given the heterogeneity of the student body and their disparate socioeconomic backgrounds, instructors must appreciate the different frames of references that students may bring into the classroom. When teaching fundamentals about the United States criminal justice system, one should keep in mind that not all students were raised with civilian control of police departments (or even government). Understanding these diversities can help keep students more engaged and can also be used as a tool to gain insight into different concepts of crime and justice.
In addition to being immigrants in New York City, many students struggle with economic disadvantage and work to support themselves, even while enrolled in school full-time.
Full-Time Students and Number of Paid Work Hours per Week (2013)
Working full-time poses obvious hardships when trying to find the time to study or read and complete assignments for class. While students who have no time for school should perhaps reconsider their educational priorities, professors should consider the amount of time assignments take. For example, longer assignments could be due after a weekend, while shorter assignments are given when class meets again in two days. Give students the opportunity to plan ahead and budget their time to increase the likelihood that the reading or writing assignment gets done.
The different income brackets of CUNY community college students highlight the economic difficulties facing the majority of the Justice Academy students.
Students’ Household Income by Community College (2013)
Almost half of community college students live in households with incomes below $20,000. Roughly 30 percent of all students’ households have four or more family members. Even with tuition assistance, students just barely scrape by, especially when the cost of books and reading materials are included. Certain courses require a textbook as a reference, but instructors have a lot of flexibility around how readings are distributed. Be considerate of students with limited economic means and packed schedules.
In addition to their work and school load, Justice Academy students often have pronounced familial responsibilities. Many Justice Academy students lack study space at home and may have to share computer access and other essential tools for success in college with siblings, their parents, and their children. Some are the primary caregivers or wage earners for their families.
As an instructor, you should consider these circumstances when you make last-minute assignments or assign activities that call for a time or monetary commitment outside of class. While students may appreciate the hands-on experience of witnessing a court case in progress or traveling to see an important speaker, time and money limitations may interfere with a student’s ability to complete an assignment that does not fall within the hours and budget of the class they are enrolled in. That said, many students love such activities and consider them part of the greater college experience — but it is better to assign them as extra credit, rather than a requirement.
Though it may sound clichéd, the same factors that can be a handicap to students’ academic success can also provide wonderful opportunities in the classroom. The difficulties that students face and, in large part, overcome are precisely what make teaching at CUNY community colleges so rewarding. Students have life experiences and knowledge that provide them with firmly rooted sensibilities about the subject matter. Few are better suited to applying “academic” theories to real-world situations. Especially in the field of criminal justice, your students — more often than not — have experienced what more traditional college students can only see in the abstract.
Discussing relevant current events is not simply a way to apply real-world situations to classroom material, but rather an effective way to link subject matter to the day-to-day life of students. Most of your male students have been stopped and frisked by the NYPD. Most of your students live near criminal activity and can discuss the life choices they have made, both good and bad. Your students, even ones lacking certain remedial skills, have earned their place in the academic world in a way in which many so-called “better” students never have. By and large, these are very smart students. The skill set of community college students encompasses a far greater range than other schools. Consider in the context how many Justice Academy students are immigrants and first-generation college students. The obstacles these students have overcome are quite remarkable. Had they been born to upper-middle-class parents with college degrees, they might very well have a sense of entitlement and be enrolled in more prestigious private universities. Be honored that they are your students and have a strong desire to learn and better themselves.
CUNY community colleges maintain a low overall tuition relative to other schools both in New York and nationally: around $4,000 per semester, compared with a national average of about $11,500. And while CUNY does provide excellent value for money, the money is still substantial. Think of this way, how many professors have an extra $8,000 every year? Most students are still struggling to pay for school as evidenced by the number of students receiving aid.
Many students also navigate the complex bureaucracy of college quite poorly. It is easy to fall through the cracks. Do not be afraid to inform students of the college resources available to them. Professors can provide links or handouts that include strategies like how to take notes, manage stress, and budget time. These are readily available as part of the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Success Toolbox.
Colleges also offer students resources such as a writing center. While various writing centers receive mixed grades from students, some students find the writing center extremely helpful. At the very worst, such instruction will certainly do no harm. Telling students about such services can go a long way toward orienting a student who may not know where to look.
Some other resources include:
If they consider their students’ diverse backgrounds, instructors are in a key position to aid the Justice Academy scholars through support, sensitivity, and connecting them to resources. The following is a list of ways instructors can respond to the needs of these students:
by Cory Feldman
Case Study: Bronx Community College
I often refer to Bronx Community College (BCC) students as an extraordinary population. Hispanics make up about half of all students at BCC, and African Americans aren’t too far behind in numbers. In fact, according to CUNY’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, the population at BCC in 2014 was: 7,024 Hispanic, 3,728 Black, 388 Asian/Pacific Islander, 344 White, and 22 American Indian/Alaskan Native. As an instructor in an urban community college, I quickly learned that BCC students are different from the traditional college student because many students, mostly black and Hispanic, have chosen to attend college despite degrading factors that surround them. The majority of BCC students have traveled from other countries to attend school. While this is an exciting journey for them, for many the disadvantage is that English is not their first language. This makes it difficult to integrate into college-level courses that are for the English-speaking student.
BCC students, like many CUNY students, are usually the first generation in their family to obtain a higher degree. Some are married while many are supporting children and work more than 20 hours a week but have a household income of less than $20,000. A large percentage of students have entered college with a diploma from a New York City public high school. Students at BCC are often from areas such as the Bronx, Harlem, Washington Heights, Yonkers, and a few other inner-city communities in Queens and Brooklyn. They strive for excellence despite experiencing broken homes, limited employment opportunities, lack of family and community support, and so much more. Many students are returning students who have taken breaks from school for various reasons, including financial limitations, lack of time, and tending to family. In fact, there is a small population of students who have engaged in deviant and/or criminal behavior and, despite the label of a convicted offender, are still dedicated to getting an education.
Starting in the fall of 2015, BCC began offering several new programs to help students: “academic success coaches,” WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) fellows, and more learning community clusters.
Academic success coaches work closely with students and faculty. Their role is to advise students and ensure that students set educational and career goals, choose the right courses to stay on track towards graduation, and encourage students to take advantage of academic support services.
WAC fellows provide supplemental instruction for faculty who are teaching writing-intensive courses. The role of the WAC fellows is to assist faculty with creating writing courses and assignments appropriate for students.
Learning community clusters are two or three courses taught by faculty who work together on a curriculum for students taking each class together. The goal of learning community clusters is that students will learn to build a communion with one another by taking the integrated courses as a group. Faculty members meet periodically to discuss students’ academic progress in the classes and are able to aggressively intervene for students who may need additional help.
Like most community colleges, college readiness is a major issue that can delay students’ academic progress. As of fall 2014, the average GPA for all BCC students was 2.50, and for students in the Criminal Justice major, it was 2.29. What contributes to BCC’s low average? Students often come to BCC unprepared for college. Upon entering college, prospective students are usually asked to pass entrance exams in English and reading, as well as math. The majority of students who are required to take these entry exams do not pass. They are then required to take remedial courses before taking college-level courses. Students often attempt to take other courses, leaving remedial courses for the end of their semester.
BCC students are not required to participate in a First Year Seminar program. Data shows that BCC students who do participate in First Year Seminar have better results than nonparticipating students; in particular, they have a higher GPA. First Year Seminar instructors have also exposed students to other academic support services, while nonparticipating students may not be fully aware of supplemental services available to them. First Year Seminar courses have often exposed students to key skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college. These include communication skills, stress and time management, and study strategies. Participating students learn classroom etiquette, how to register for courses, BCC’s policy on plagiarism, and various campus resources. For these reasons, students — especially those in the Justice Academy — should be encouraged to join the First Year Seminar.
BCC students are ambitious, though it is common for obstacles to hinder their academic journey. As a professor, I consider their personal experience to be their strength. I’ve learned that as much as I teach them, they teach me. Though at times they struggle with separating their street identity from their school identity, personal experience encourages them to seek an education. For Criminal Justice students in particular, I’ve learned that the reasons for studying the major varies according to personal experience.
Some students are interested in learning basic rights as a citizen, some are seeking opportunities that challenge policies that target minorities within our criminal justice system, and others are seeking an opportunity to join law enforcement as defense mechanism for victimization resulting from police and citizen tension. Because of these various reasons, teaching BCC students is an honor. It is an opportunity to teach students how to transform their experience into a learning experience for a greater purpose. Despite the educational, financial, and other personal obstacles that may interfere with their academics, BCC students are teachable as many of them are willing and excited to learn.
BCC often has trouble retaining students. As they lack basic reading and writing skills, many students become discouraged and do not return to school for the following semester. For most black and Hispanic students, an associate degree is the academic limit. Moreover, the majority of BCC students take longer than the average time — 2 to 2.5 years — to complete a degree. I have personally met students who have been in community college more than 5 years.
Addressing this challenge can be difficult because institutions could provide the resources for students to succeed, but resources are still limited. Faculty members are not responsible for what students experience outside the classroom. Outside obstacles often discourage students from returning to school. As educators, it is important not to hold ourselves accountable for help we cannot provide to students. Most faculty at BCC are willing to extend extra effort to help students succeed. Sometimes that means supporting students throughout their journey at BCC, encouraging them to register each semester, informing them about academic support resources and student life, and generally being accessible.
As the Greek writer and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis said, “True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.”
by Marjaline Vizcarrondo