Colleges of the Year: Seattle Central

This community college pushes diverse students to work together in small teams

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Hunter, a former crack addict, is a single mother with five boys. To make ends meet, she works for a collection agency from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., when her classes begin. She often thinks about quitting college to earn more money. But her friendship with Pham has kept her focused on her goal: to get a bachelor's degree in business. "For the first time since I can remember," says Hunter, "there are people besides my family that I can talk to."

Mixing all sorts of different people together in their first year of college doesn't always turn out so smoothly, however. And that may be part of the point. One of Seattle Central's learning communities is called Integrated Media Communications, in which 70 students from the departments of photography, graphic design and printing meet for six hours every Friday. For the final project in May, instructors divided the class into teams and matched students with others from different fields. Each group had to create an original brochure for a real nonprofit organization.

Mary Cunningham, 40, a mother of three, found herself teamed with Jenna Geary, 23, a professional printer, and Jake Dehnert, 19, a talented, carefree high school graduate hoping to become a graphic designer. The trio's brochure, for a diabetes-research group, turned out brilliantly: the nonprofit is planning to distribute it widely. But getting there involved a series of sometimes bitter clashes, with Dehnert's becoming fed up with Cunningham's bossiness and both women's lashing out at what the two considered Dehnert's lack of responsibility. Says Cunningham: "When you're a mother, you're a mother. You tell people what to do. I had to learn to be more flexible." Dehnert, whose artistic talent helped make the brochure a success but who also slept through the group's final presentation, says working so closely with Cunningham changed him. "Mary raised the bar. I'm more professional because of her."

Nearly 650 Seattle Central students a year sign up for learning communities, and for these students the retention rate is a remarkable 97%. The college's overall retention rate is 70%, a strong number for a community college serving such a low-income population. But there's no numerical formula for measuring how much students learn from the diversity of their peers. Consider Jennifer Strickland, 17, a humanities student from Bainbridge Island, a wealthy, secluded suburb of Seattle. By the spring of her first year, she had become so involved in the college community that she joined a group of students in a march to protest the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man. "Seattle Central has kind of made me realize I had been living in a bubble for the past 10 years," says Strickland. "Now I see political injustices and want to change them."

To see a photo essay on the colleges, go to

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