Stumping for Community Colleges

Lt. Gov. Michael Steele visits a nursing assistant class as Vasilisa Salamatous checks Lola Grant's blood pressure.
Lt. Gov. Michael Steele visits a nursing assistant class as Vasilisa Salamatous checks Lola Grant's blood pressure. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washngton Post)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele approached the neon-yellow caution tape and surveyed the grisly scene. A severed head impaled on the leg of a chair. A body crumpled on the ground, a syringe stuck in its forehead. Lines of cocaine on a nearby table.

"Oh, my goodness," Steele said, laughing, as he dusted for his own fingerprints. "This is, like, so cool."

The mock crime scene investigation was staged with dummies and props by the College of Southern Maryland's criminal justice program for Steele's Wednesday morning visit. He was on campus to take a tour, exchange ideas, "share the love" and perhaps, as a college administrator suggested, increase his visibility as he campaigns for the U.S. Senate.

But the only stumping during the visit was for improving state education, which Steele (R) said hinges on two-year community colleges such as Southern Maryland and their connection to four-year institutions, the workforce and the ever-increasing demands on families and wallets.

"I think the future is with community colleges, frankly," Steele said during a focus group meeting with deans, professors, board members and students. "They afford families a greater flexibility in terms of the time to get a degree and the cost."

The group also discussed the challenge of credits between schools and the pressure that remedial courses can put on students who are not adequately prepared for college. Steele also asked what his office could do to help.

Student and Waldorf resident Reginald Swann said it can be a burden balancing a job at the Student Life Office with his pursuit of an associate's degree in applied science.

"I'm trying to get my mom to go to school, but it's just impossible. She works," said Swann, who attended West Virginia University for two years and worked a government job for four before enrolling at Southern Maryland.

"We want to thank you for all you're doing," college President Elaine Ryan told Steele. "But there's a lot more to do." The College of Southern Maryland, Ryan added, has grown dramatically since its regional consolidation in 2000, though part-time enrollment has suffered because area traffic congestion, among other factors, erodes the free time of potential students.

Formerly Charles County Community College, the College of Southern Maryland has just over 21,000 students enrolled among its campuses in La Plata, Prince Frederick and Leonardtown.

After the focus group meeting, Steele practiced his fingerprint-lifting technique with criminal justice professor Ed Schauf at the mock homicide scene, then braved the chilly drizzle outside, hopping from building to building to mingle with faculty and students as they demonstrated workplace technology in the classroom.

Steele watched nursing lab coordinator Linda Goodman attend to a "pregnant" dummy, which simulates fetal movement and has a removable abdomen, as nursing assistant students practiced taking blood pressure -- first on a computerized arm with an amplified heartbeat, then on one another.

Outside, the lieutenant governor sat in the passenger seat of a 14-wheel tractor-trailer used to train students in the college's truck-driving program and reflected on how his father used to drive trucks for the federal government.

Next, Steele visited the art gallery in the Fine Arts Center, where he pondered an Evan Reed sculpture that used recycled wood and corrugated roofing to create a tableau of overalls and barbed wire fence.

His thoughts?

"I get this. I do," he said. "This is the life of a farmer."

The last stop on the tour was a design classroom where 20 white Macs hummed, waiting to be used by computer graphics students.

Two weeks ago, Steele made a similar visit to Howard Community College. He plans to visit other community colleges in the next several months.

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