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Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

December 02, 2009

In 2007 there were 847 students in more than 35 cooperative learning classes in subjects such as developmental English, anatomy, and sociology at Patrick Henry, and the college has continued to assess the results, particularly when it comes to persistence. All signs indicate that things are moving in the right direction. For the 2005 and 2006 cohorts of first-time, degree-seeking students, the attrition rate for students who did not enroll in courses using cooperative learning was 25.6 percent, compared to 19.1 percent for those who were enrolled in one cooperative learning course and to a remarkably low 5.3 percent for students taking two or more cooperative learning courses.

At least 10 other colleges feature faculty development as a prominent aspect of Achieving the Dream work and as a vehicle for faculty engagement. At Brookhaven College in Texas, 100 faculty members attended conferences or workshops under an Achieving the Dream grant, while virtually all the full-time professors at the University of New Mexico-Gallup have participated in professional activities. Other colleges have focused on involving students through surveys, focus groups, and inclusion on program teams or committees. At Central New Mexico Community College, for example, student focus groups generated ideas for improving the college’s learning-communities strategy.

Norwalk Community College (NCC) in Connecticut reached out to the community to change perceptions of the college, improve student performance and success, and begin making headway on the state’s achievement gap—the largest in the nation. On a cold Saturday morning in January 2006, the college brought together over 100 faculty, staff, board members, K-12 representatives, and leaders of local nonprofit organizations for a “community conversation” based on a model developed by Public Agenda. The topic was “What do we need to be doing as a college to better serve the community?” The discussion covered making more successful transitions from one educational level to the next, providing stronger student support, and creating better access to information about resources at the institution.

Since then, NCC has reached out even further, launching a number of initiatives to institutionalize its community engagement in specific areas, including early childhood and K-12 education. These include working with the local anti-poverty agency that runs Head Start to provide better teacher training; a free-transition-to-kindergarten program focused on bilingual needs; and a number of early-college programs that bring middle and high school students to campus over the school year and summer for educational and enrichment programs such as African drumming, word processing, physical fitness, and culinary arts.

Norwalk is also working with the nearby Fairfield County Community Foundation on a new project designed to help single parents and their families. The pilot will offer 20 parents the opportunity to enroll at the college part-time while receiving support for tuition, childcare, and counseling on credit and budget issues from a financial coach. The college plans to track outcomes and then, if the program is a success, expand it to serve 100 participants over five years.

Systemic Institutional Change
When Valencia Community College in Florida joined Achieving the Dream in 2004, it wasn’t clear why the college needed help—it awards more associate degrees than any community college in the country. Still, top administrators were open about the fact that while some excellent initiatives operated on campus, almost too many innovations were in play, many of them at the margins where they were helping only a handful of students at a time. Valencia wanted to create real, systemic institutional change that touched every student who needed assistance. The college also wanted to concentrate more on closing achievement gaps such as those in the completion of remedial coursework and graduation rates, where both African-American and Hispanic students lagged behind their Caucasian and Asian peers.

To start, they worked Achieving the Dream metrics and goals into their new strategic plan and embedded the program’s core team in the College Learning Council in order to integrate the initiative into the college’s governance structure. Additionally, the college continued to take great pains to ensure that faculty and staff across its four campuses had regular access to data reports; could acquire research when they wanted it; and were regularly brainstorming about their findings through monthly, quarterly and annual meetings on a campus-, department-, and college-wide basis.

Throughout its Achieving the Dream research and planning year, Valencia assessed strategies it piloted in order to identify promising practices for student success and move them though the “innovation funnel” from test phase to full implementation. The college set criteria of effectiveness, ripeness, and scalability to identify strategies that would have the greatest impact on closing targeted achievement gaps. The winnowing process resulted in an expansion of the student success course, along with two types of learning communities—“supplemental learning” (SL), with student peer leader participation, and “learning in community” (LinC), in which either two academic subjects or a subject and a college-transition course are linked and team-taught.

In the course of their research, administrators looked at the ten classes on campus with the lowest success rates and found that nine of the ten were math or math-related (such as economics), which was a big “aha” moment. That led to an all-campus “math summit” and the eventual conclusion that more resources had to go not only into developmental math, but also into gateway courses. Administrators then paired those ten courses with the ten classes with the highest enrollment, focusing on six with the highest overlap: pre-algebra, beginning algebra, intermediate algebra (which are all developmental courses), college algebra, freshman composition, and U.S. government.

The initial results have been extremely encouraging. The strategies have touched a large number of students—23,973 between spring 2006 and summer 2008, to be exact—and these men and women are succeeding more, both in terms of course success with a grade of C or better and course completion overall. For example, in fall 2007, 71 percent of students in intermediate algebra classes with an SL or LinC component were successful, compared to 59 percent of students in the same course without interventions. A heartening 87 percent of students who participated in the interventions completed the course, compared to 79 percent of those who didn’t. Over the past two years, persistence rates also have been higher across the board for students in all SL, LinC, and student success interventions, as have average cumulative credit hours—and that’s true whether or not students tested into developmental education.