If you drive down one the main streets in the town of Tulare, you'll notice businesses like Valley Pump and Dairy Systems, Garton Tractor and H&M Equipment Repair. It's an agriculture-based economy here, one that relies heavily on the local community college -- College of the Sequoias -- to help train its workforce.
Over at the college's Tulare Center, Frank Tebeau is in the welding lab teaching students how to master different gauges. He's preparing them to work with companies that manufacture everything from steel beams to packing house equipment. Tebeau is the department chair of welding and ag mechanics.
"We work very hard through our advisory committees in the career technical area to be sure that we are offering our students specifically what it is the industry wants from us," says Tebeau.
College of the Sequoias has partnerships with all kinds of local industries, says Tebeau. "Kraft and Land O'Lakes are partners in training students for the processing end of dairy industry," he adds.
The college is the primary training ground for U.S. Farm Systems, says company engineer David Shoenhair. "It's invaluable. As a company and as an individual in a company you want to constantly improve your ability to perform," he says.
But relationships like these hang in the balance. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges recently told College of the Sequoias that it has failed to meet accreditation standards in several areas, including adequately documenting and assessing what students learn. Without accreditation, the college would lose its state funding and could ultimately close.
The president of the college says they've created a task force of faculty, staff, administrators and students to address the specific problems and he says he's confident the outcome will be positive.
Faculty member Fernando Fernandez is helping to advise the task force. He teaches horticulture and chairs the agriculture division. Today he's wrapping up a landscape maintenance class where students learn to prune large trees.
"Put the cord up please," he tells his students. He says his department is working non-stop to meet the accreditation team's demands. "And hopefully when the visiting team comes again in the fall, the agriculture division will be cleared to go," he says.
But vocational programs are easier to assess than courses like English or even science. That's why Fernandez is helping the college figure out the best way to measure student outcomes in areas that are sometimes harder to quantify.
"On the side of the faculty now, all efforts are being made to do all the assessments on the courses. It's just a matter of getting those things done and moving forward," he says.
Back in the welding lab, students like Luis Gonzalez say the school is their way out of a harder life. The 27-year-old says before he came here, he was in trouble with the law for drug possession. But he shaped up and now works here part-time. He plans to graduate in the fall and says the school gives him a focus.
"It means a lot because if I'm not here, I'm out doing bad stuff you know," he says. "It gives me something to do."
Another student, Adolfo Arredondo, is the son of farmworkers and says he's the first in his family to go to college. He's trying to get welder certification and he hopes Sequoia won't lose accreditation.
"That'd be a bad thing. I'm planning to be certified," he says.
College of the Sequoias has until October to answer to the accrediting commission, and will get a response by February.