By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Tomorrow (Thursday), new South Seattle College interim president Peter Lortz will celebrate the 150 students who comprise the school’s tenth 13th-Year Promise class, the biggest-ever group to take advantage of a free “13th year” of education.
13 is a significant number for the school’s new leader for another reason, too.
That’s how old Lortz was when he realized what career he wanted to pursue.
The story emerged while we were talking with him in his new office – steps from his previous office as vice president of instruction – on campus a few days ago.
He was talking with his mom and declared that he wanted to teach college biology.
Exactly why, he doesn’t quite recall. But it wasn’t a big surprise. Both of his parents went to college; his mom was a teacher, his dad an engineer. “I knew what I wanted to do and my parents knew how” to help him get there.
His pathway was clear – and he has spent most of his subsequent years helping students find their own pathways.
At least – the first part of his pathway. While it wasn’t immediately clear that community colleges were where he would find his education calling, since Cincinnati wasn’t a hotbed of such schools, he started turning that way while in graduate school at Miami University (Ohio).
“I was talking to my adviser about master’s versus Ph.D.,” Lortz recalled, and the adviser asked what specifically he wanted to do. The answer was the same one he had at age 13: Teach college biology.
If he wanted to teach at a university, the adviser explained, he would need a doctorate, and he would likely spend a lot of time pursuing grants, doing research, “peek(ing) in the lab every so often.”
Is that what you want to do? asked the adviser.
“No,” Lortz recalled answering. “I want to teach biology.” With a master’s degree, he was told, you can teach at community college.
After some time in Utah and Colorado, he ended up back in Cincinnati, teaching anatomy and physiology at what was Cincinnati Tech College. He took an interest in the Pacific Northwest, sent out resumes, got one nibble that was “not a good fit,” so he just headed out to Seattle to take a chance. He got teaching work at North Seattle College right away, “and I was hooked.”
Along the way, after more than a decade of teaching, he moved into administration as dean of math and science at North; his career then took him to South, where he’s been VP of instruction for more than three years, and now, 23 years after arriving in Seattle, he has succeeded retired SSC president Gary Oertli as interim president, to serve the entire year while the requisite nationwide search is conducted for the permanent appointee.
The new role already has changed his summer – most years he goes fishing in Colorado in the summer, but not this year.
Lortz appears to be having a great time anyway, still settling into the new office that currently has a view of the construction fence for the new building – now to be known as Cascade Hall – that’s being built, as well as browning grass.
And Lortz is excited about what’s new this year, as the fall quarter approaches – official starting date, Monday, September 25th.
When we met for this story, he said SSC had just received word of state approval for its revamped nursing program, and that’s exciting. “Nursing was one of the big projects I knew I’d have to take on,” including envisioning what a district-wide nursing program would look like for South and its sibling schools.
Now, the program approval is intersecting with completion of the new building. “I’m giddy to share that we’re going to have our first cohort of nursing students under this program, be on the second floor of the new building.”
Something else that’s big for him in this year of serving as president, Guided Pathways, the initiative that “will really change how we interface with students … from the instruction side, it creates clear … maps for the students, ‘here’s what you need to do to get into (a) program,’ instead of saying, here are 200 classes to choose from, here’s an adviser, and here’s what you need to do.”
Guided Pathways also is “more intentional about supports along the way … instead of asking, are students college-ready, we’re asking, are colleges student-ready?”
South Seattle College is a trailblazer with this – one of about 30 colleges in the American Association of Community Colleges. Guided Pathways improve efficiency as well as clarity, as they keep students from “getting lost in the maze.” Lortz explains that the average student “is taking 40 or so more credits than they need,” with some of those credits being redundant, “various classes (that) all counted for the same thing,” but nobody told them. And it’s not necessarily a “too much of a good thing” situation – in some cases, students taking more classes than are needed for their goals could lead them to run out of financial aid, for example. So it’s expected to improve completion rates – which South intends to double – as well as retention rates.
Lortz says it’s been “fascinating” not only to “rethink how the college works with the students,” but also “how parts of the college work with each other.” One college in the Southeast more than doubled completion rates via a Guided Pathways type of program – but it took more than 12 years, so this is no overnight transformation. South’s been on the path since 2014, he explains. And they’ll continue celebrating incremental improvement.
And now his career has changed, with a larger “scope and scale” than ever. “When I was a teacher, I used to say that I set the stage for the students to do well – as an administrator, I’m setting the stage for the deans and faculty to do well. And now I’m setting the stage for the college to help the students.”
He is optimistic that “I can make a big impact if I get this right.”
His studies in biology and ecology, Lortz says, “and how things interrelate, absolutely translates to helping me do my job.” Even the college itself is an organism, we suggest, and he agrees.
As is the larger community, and so how South Seattle College connects to West Seattle in general is something Lortz wants to improve. How much transformation is possible in his year, that’s hard to tell, but “it’s been on my mind.”
And the school itself already has so much to celebrate. He sees it as “a very balanced college, in terms of the mix of programs that it offers” – he rattles off a list including wine, horticulture, auto body just for starters – as well as the services it offers students. “It’s just amazing to me, the richness” of the school’s offerings.
Yet its future isn’t guaranteed because of one big question mark – the funding issue. “The community-college funding model is not sustainable,” Lortz declares. He says he’s well aware of the state’s overall funding struggle – and, he notes, “I have 15- and 11-year-old daughters, and I want (sustainable) K through 12 funding too.” But for the task immediately before him, leading a college that needs not only to survive but to thrive, “this funding model is taking its toll not only on the ability to fund programs, but to retain talent.” “We are attracting this incredible talent … (but) when I call and make the offer, (mentioning) the salaries, the conversation is over” – the budget situation means they can’t offer enough to seal the deal with that “incredible talent,” which he finds “sad.” There’s room to grow, but the college is “underfunded,” and those situations “seem counter to each other.”
The 13th-Year Promise program, which offers a free year of college to graduates from certain Seattle public high schools, is a bright spot. With partnership from the city, West Seattle High School will be added (participating schools already include Chief Sealth International High School) starting next year, and the program is expected to expand to South’s sibling schools, so they’re sharing their knowledge in developing the program.
On Thursday, Lortz will speak to the 150 13th Year students who have been going through orientation this week. And then next week, he has another speech to give – the presidential speech looking ahead to the new quarter. He will have 20 minutes to set the tone for the year ahead. As a longtime teacher, he notes, he has no problem speaking for long periods – if anything, figuring out how to fit it all into 20 minutes is the challenge.
But he’s looking forward to it, and to the opening of Cascade Hall later this fall – along with the nursing and allied health programs on the second floor, and their faculties on the third floor, the new building will include space for adult basic education and ESL on the first floor, programs that are prioritized at South, not afterthoughts as they are in some places.
The project also includes a big open space, “to create a more commons-type area, with (even more of a) college feel. … I think it’s really going to change the feel of the college.”
And that, it seems, is the theme, as he settles in to lead SSC through what’s likely to be a transformational year in more ways than one.