College calls it quits on Sweet Home Center

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era

Linn-Benton Community College announced Thursday, Feb. 16, that it was closing its Sweet Home Center, citing a “dramatic” decline in use and changing student needs, such as hybrid and remote classes.

According to a news release issued by the college, the COVID-19 pandemic was also a factor in the closure of the center, which stands adjacent to Sweet Home High School.

Local LBCC services will be transferred to sites throughout the school and city. However, advising staff will support the high school’s dual-enrollment population with weekly office hours at the school on Wednesdays.

Kristin Adams, chair of LBCC’s Board of Directors, is also Sweet Home High School’s High School Success Coordinator, overseeing initiatives to increase graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment, and technical education advancements.

She said that the move is a result of a combination of factors: legislative budget cuts, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education, and, ultimately, a lack of interest in taking college classes in Sweet Home.

“I knew it was coming, sooner or later,” she said, emphasizing that she was speaking as the school’s post-education advisor, not for the LBCC board.

“I know people are upset, but really, it has been closed for three years.”

She noted that when the college reopened the facility in September, it did not get enough interest to sustain any classes in Sweet Home.

Also, she said, the state Legislature has “really cut” funding for community colleges, while bolstering funding for K-12 schools. The high school has been able to procure anatomical manikins, for instance, that the college can’t afford, she said.

Meanwhile, lack of enrollment in Sweet Home classes has made it hard to sustain the program, Adams said.

“We need at least 10 students to make a class go, but when you have seven or eight people sign up, it’s not worth the cost of it.”

It’s not just Sweet Home, Adams said, adding that Lebanon’s branch is “skeletal” compared to pre-pandemic days.

LBCC has offered community education in the city since 1971, opening the Santiam Center at what was then the Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce. It moved in the mid-1970s to a leased building at 1314 Long St. before returning to its former home when the chamber relocated.

Then-Director MarySue Reynolds stands outside the newly opened LBCC Sweet Home Center in September 2004. File photo

The current 5,000-square-foot center was built in 2003 on high-school property and formally dedicated in September 2004.

LBCC President Lisa Avery said that the college’s rural outreach remained a “high priority” and that its partnership with the Sweet Home School District was vital.

“As an important part of LBCC’s vision of ‘Education for All,’ we strive to serve all corners of our service area,” she said in a statement.

“While the use of the Sweet Home Center has decreased over the past several years, this was a difficult decision to make due to the long history of the center serving the community.”

Adams noted that Stephanie Jorgensen, a high school outreach specialist, is already visiting the high school once a week to work with students on post-graduation educational plans, scholarships and financial aid.

“I just want people to know that, from the high school’s perspective, LBCC has not left us,” she said. “I think we need to recognize that education is changing. The pandemic kind of quantified that in the sense that people realize there’s more work out there than there are people willing to work.”

The combination of being able to take college classes online and increased wage opportunities have reduced interest among Sweet Home graduates in actually attending classes in a brick-and-mortar setting, Adams said.

“People aren’t necessarily believing that education any more is their ticket out of poverty because they can go to work for $22 an hour at a fast food restaurant.”

But, she added, “one thing the pandemic did bring out with LBCC is it kind of forced community colleges’ hand in creating an online environment.”

She said she has seen an increase among students interested in taking online LBCC classes while still in high school.

Also, Adams said, she hopes the college’s robust Career Technical Education programs might offer the possibility of those classes being offered to local residents in the high school’s facilities.

Sweet Home School District Superintendent Terry Martin hoped to continue the district’s relationship with the institution.

“LBCC has been a strong community partner for decades,” he said in a statement. “We are optimistic that we can continue to work with LBCC to provide educational programming that benefits Sweet Home students and community members in the years ahead.

“LBCC is welcome to use school district facilities whenever an opportunity arises for an in-person class, seminar, or workshop provided space is available.”

The school official also spoke of growth within both the city and the district. World Population Review reported that Sweet Home passed 10,000 residents earlier this year, becoming the 68th most populated of Oregon’s 372 cities.

According to the state Department of Education, about 2,340 students were enrolled in the district’s seven schools at the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year against 2,323 three years earlier.

“Our community is growing, and lots of good things are happening here,” he said. “Families are discovering what a wonderful place Sweet Home is to live, work and learn.”

Adams said it’s “disappointing not to have that sign there anymore, but the college hasn’t left.”