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Students stroll across the grounds of Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2013. The Contra Costa Community College District will celebrate its 65th anniversary this month. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)
CORRECTION (Published 12/7/2013)

A story incorrectly spelled the name of Drummond McCunn, the Contra Costa Community College District's first superintendent.A story Friday on the front page of the Local News section incorrectly spelled the name of Drummond McCunn, the Contra Costa Community College District's first superintendent.

Today, the Contra Costa Community College District is an integral part of the Bay Area's higher education landscape. But 65 years ago, the idea of a countywide "junior college" system was a tough sell.

Political infighting and geographic rivalries nearly doomed the effort. West County education leaders initially refused to join, and in 1946, Central and East County voters rejected a proposed district.

Bolstered by support from influential politicians, labor leaders and education groups, proponents pushed ahead, and in a special election on Dec. 14, 1948, voters narrowly approved formation of the Contra Costa Junior College District. The following year, the first classes convened at Camp Stoneman, a former army facility in Pittsburg.

Since then, the district has grown to include three campuses -- Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill and Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, plus learning centers in San Ramon and Brentwood. In fall 2012, those campuses had 36,000 students enrolled.

The district celebrates its 65th anniversary from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday ¿at Universal Sports Academy, 330 Ferry St. in Martinez.

"I call us the egalitarian institution of higher education because we are totally open access, we have no real requirements, you don't have to have finished high school in some cases," Chancellor Helen Benjamin said. "We provide a variety of educational services for all kinds of people."

During the district's tumultuous early years, faculty, administrators and students clashed with first Superintendent Drummond McCunn, whose top-down leadership style conflicted with the inclusive ethos of the community colleges. The governing board fired McCunn in 1962, five months after his remarks about socialism on campus ignited a firestorm of criticism.

The late 1960s and early 1970s brought an influx of older women and students of color to the district. During this period, the faculty was becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

"All it took was two or three women who'd raised families, who needed or wanted to go back to school or, more importantly, needed that financially to have them in a classroom with a bunch of teenagers," said Bill Harlan, who taught English at DVC for 25 years. "They brought a level of seriousness and commitment to the classroom that was very healthy in the long run for the college."

In 1969, Richmond High School graduate Maria Viramontes had a scholarship to UC Berkeley. Overwhelmed by the protests roiling that campus and the idea of leaving her neighborhood, Viramontes instead enrolled at Contra Costa College.

"It worked out perfect for me; it was the right place. I ended up growing up there," she said.

Viramontes, the first woman elected to the district's governing board, helped establish the district's first Chicano Studies Department. Years later, she was a part-time faculty member at the college and developed a mentoring program. But she felt the district wasn't doing enough to help people without high school diplomas.

"That's really what motivated me to run (for a board seat), to meet that need and get the college to outreach to that older population trying to come back and get a second chance," said Viramontes, who was elected in 1990.

Funding cuts brought on by Proposition 13 in 1978 forced the district to eliminate academic programs and slash staff. The unpredictable nature of state funding remains an ongoing challenge, Benjamin said.

Amid the triumphs of the past decade -- enrollment growth, new buildings, the expansion to San Ramon -- the district also has wrestled with scandal. In 2007, news that a group of student employees was taking bribes to change grades on official transcripts rocked DVC. Earlier this year, police uncovered a scam to bilk Contra Costa College out of $109,000 in Pell Grant money.

After the grade-changing scandal, the district worked to repair its reputation by disciplining students, tracking down students who transferred to four-year schools with fraudulent transcripts and implementing new employee training policies, among other changes, Benjamin said.

"I think we have gained back the confidence of the community," said Benjamin who is optimistic about the future.

"Whether a person has a degree or does not have a degree, there are still programs and services we offer that will be helpful in transforming their lives," Benjamin said.

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.

by the numbers
Contra Costa College District student enrollment Fall 2012 -- 36,000 students
Female: 53 percent
Male: 46 percent
Median age: 22
African-American: 12 percent
Asian: 10 percent
Latino: 27 percent
White: 32 percent
District average completion rate: 55 percent
Transfer rates to four-year college or university.
Contra Costa College: 31 percent
Diablo Valley College: 52 percent
Los Medanos College: 35 percent
Source: Contra Costa Community College District