‘Dream’ conference inspires, motivates

IMG_1825A group of 22 faculty and administrators joined more than 1,800 participants from community colleges nationwide at the Achieving the Dream conference earlier this month. With the shared goal of helping students succeed, Pierce attendees broke out into teams to attend as many sessions as possible before reporting back to the group on what they’ve learned.

Many sessions focused on data and communication, and encouraged attendees to determine their own areas in need of improvement. “We found that we are right on the curve – not behind or ahead of it,” said Fort Steilacoom President Denise Yochum. “We’re looking good.”

Sessions focused on a variety of themes related to student success such as equity, engagement, start-to finish and basic skills, pre-college English and math, and data and communication.

“This conference was a great way to go into more depth with Achieving the Dream and what we can do with it,” said ATD Co-chair Tom Broxson. “It was chance to learn ways to take what we’re doing with data to the next level.”

The Pierce College team certainly made an impact on other conference leaders and attendees, with several commenting on the team’s dedication. “Pierce is the most organized, effective conference team I’ve ever seen,” said Data Coach Lynda Villanueva. As an Achieving the Dream data coach, Villanueva consults with colleges on topics related to student success courses, college readiness and developmental education.

The idea of equity was a hot topic at the conference, encouraging attendees to think more about the role of a college in the greater community. “What can we do as a community college if we have homeless students?” said Michele Johnson. “We need to be able to connect students to housing or food banks to make sure these are not reasons they quit school.”

Restructuring Precollege Math

ATDThe path toward earning a college degree or certificate is often paved with challenges and complications, but also personal achievements and successes. And in maintaining its mission to provide quality educational opportunities to a diverse community of learners, Pierce College is investing more resources into truly understanding the obstacles students face.  With the school’s involvement in Achieving the Dream, Pierce College is tracking the reasons students are successful, and why some leave without a college degree or certificate.

The biggest reason students leave without a degree: math. For some people, it can cause so much anxiety that it becomes a road block that has the potential to stand in the way of earning a college degree. This is a national trend that community colleges face, and Pierce College is at the forefront of facing these issues head-on.

Currently, students who do not test into college level math courses are required to pass four pre-college math courses before moving onto college level classes.

A proposed redesign of these classes will take into account the students who are not interested in pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. The new program allows students to take two condensed precollege math courses before moving on in their college careers. Students pursuing degrees in the STEM fields will be required to take the same two courses, along with Intermediate Algebra for Pre-calculus before enrolling in college level math classes. The new program will be piloted this Spring.

The new courses have been redesigned based on a system developed by the Carnegie Foundation. One of the lab-based courses will require that students work in groups to solve complex problems, with guidance from the instructor when needed. To ensure students are successful, supplemental instruction will be ramped up to provide additional one-on-one help. “Students will learn how to think mathematically in these classes,” said Tom Broxson, Pierce College’s Achieving The Dream co-chairman.

The new requirements will decrease the chance of students failing courses and accelerate their ability to earn that degree or certificate.

“The vast majority of our students are first generation college students, and if we can get them through precollege math more efficiently, it will help them stick around longer and eventually graduate with a degree,” he said.

Achieving the Dream makes progress on retention

The genius behind Pierce College’s involvement in Achieving the Dream is that the “five indicators of success” are not a group of worthy — yet unrelated — goals. Instead, the indicators build on one another like dominoes: when retention grows, it sets the stage for improvements in precollege education, gateway course and college course completion, and finally, graduation.

ADT-LogoRecent analysis shows that student retention at Pierce College has grown since 2010 — with many groups showing a marked improvement — giving Pierce a solid start toward realizing the goals embodied in Achieving the Dream.

“Overall, our fall-to-winter retention for new degree-seeking students improved four percent — our historical drop-off of 19 to 20 percent actually held at 15 percent,” Kris Cummings, Pierce’s director of Institutional Research, told the Board of Trustees in November.

2010 was chosen as a benchmark, she said, because it precedes an increased national focus on community colleges starting in 2011-12, and Pierce’s initial involvement in Achieving the Dream and other student-improvement efforts in 2012-13.

Retention spiking for some groups

But while overall fall-to-winter numbers have risen modestly, the exciting news is that for many student groups, retention has shown much sharper increases.

“Equity is a key principle of Achieving the Dream, so we’re thrilled that some of our students with historically low retention rates are showing the best improvement: students with dependents rose from 73 to 80 percent; African American students, from 76 to 83 percent; males, from 78 to 83 percent; and part-time students — historically our biggest drop-off — from 71 to 77 percent,” Cummings explained.

And although the increases continue for fall-to-fall retention for nearly all groups, the few drop-off areas highlight opportunities for growth.

“Our students with dependents are doing well from fall to winter, but they drop off again in fall-to-fall measurements,” she said. “This shows that while we’re generally doing well and making progress, we still have work to do to close retention gaps in some places,” she said.

Future includes more measurement, automation

After the first of the year, Cummings added that Institutional Research will begin pulling three-year data on the remaining ATD indicators.

“We don’t expect to see the latter ATD indicators such as college-level course completion and graduation rates rising as rapidly — because the students we’ve measured in the last year or two might not be there yet — but it’s a baseline we’ll use for more analysis over the next few years,” she explained.

And to bolster these numbers and help more students earn a degree or certificate or reach their goal, she said, Pierce has identified five priority areas — engagement, start 2 finish, basic skills, precollege math and precollege English/reading — and is building interventions under each.

Also, parallel to the continued ATD analysis, Cummings announced that several other research reports are in the process of being automated, including enrollment and program data.

“Initially, all the numbers we’ve been working with were kept in Excel sheets, but programmer Andrew Craswell is writing code that will allow us to post historical and real-time ATD data on the Institutional Research website,” she said.

“The numbers will be presented in a much more visual, current and useful way, and the whole college community will have access,” she added. “We expect that to start in winter quarter of this academic year.”

ATD coaches visit to evaluate, encourage, plan

When a school is selected to participate in Achieving the Dream — as Pierce College was in spring 2012 — it is not merely given a set of guidelines and cut loose to thrive or fail, it is supported with professional coaches who help guide and mentor the college through the entire process.  Our ATD coaches, Diane Troyer and Linda Villanueva, returned Pierce College Nov. 4 and 5 to evaluate progress, recognize strengths and help the school plan its next steps toward Achieving the Dream.

“We try to ask employees to have courageous conversations about what’s really supporting students and what’s not, and whether we have the data to back up those assumptions,” says Villanueva. “We’re also here to connect Pierce with the network of other ATD colleges, share best practices and build on the strengths Pierce already has.”

Both coaches say that Pierce is starting from a great position already, with a strong, unified vision for student success that acts as an umbrella over any number of improvement initiatives that might be going on.

“In many colleges, whether they’re working on ATD or Title III or Trio, the efforts are all separate, but Pierce College has created a very coordinated effort and knows where it wants to go in improving outcomes for students,” says Troyer. “And that goal at Pierce is based on equity, making sure that all students who come here have the opportunity and the tools they need to succeed.”

The pair also has advice for keeping Pierce on a successful ATD track: Be careful not to do so much that it isn’t possible to sustain the  efforts.

“One of the exciting things is that you have a lot going on at Pierce College, and innovation thrives here,” Troyer says. “But at some point, the college has to decide which of these great ideas they are going to apply to all students, and put the resources behind them so they can truly maximize the impact.”

Through ATD, Pierce College is learning more about what it already knows: that while helping underserved populations such as low-income or military students is an honorable goal, we’re not truly progressing as an educational institution until we find provable, data-driven ways to assure those keys to success are available to all students.

Or as Villanueva puts it, the ATD process is a journey, not a destination. And although Pierce is well on its way, “there is still work to do.”

Troyer adds: “We’ve been impressed with the level of the conversation about student success at Pierce College. You’re talking about the right things and taking on the right challenges — and now you’re learning and applying the tools you need to take that conversation to a solution.”

An interview with the ATD coaches is available here on video.

Achieving the Dream team pushes on through 2013

Since Pierce College was chosen as an Achieving the Dream school in March 2012, the entire institution has embraced the ATD mission of helping more community college students stay in school and earn a college certificate or degree. As part of this national movement, we are gathering data and building a “culture of evidence” to help us better understand what keeps students at Pierce and what causes them to leave.

Over the last several months, ATD subgroups charged with concentrating on our five chosen priority areas have made considerable progress. And at the end of this post, you’ll be invited to join their efforts.

  • Engagement (building a Center for Engagement and Learning to increase all college employees’ knowledge of student retention practices) — Reworking the new faculty learning community, master teaching and other programs. Also, work has begun on building a best-practices platform, employee-student mentoring program and knowledge management database.
  • Start 2 Finish model (improving student orientation and advising, and designing a mandatory college success course) — Established new goals and a new process for orientation. Began building a new advising system that relies on state-of-the-art technology. Started redesigning the college success course.
  • Basic Skills (creating a S2F model for adult basic education, GED and English as a second language) — Work will begin this fall, with smaller groups each concentrating on orientation, advising and college success.
  • Precollege math — Increased supplemental instruction support of precollege math courses. New, computer-based math labs on both campuses have been equipped, including hours spent creating new curriculum and procedures. Learning modules are being created for the tutoring center. Redesigned the precollege math sequence. Work begins this fall on aligning placement testing with local high school math coursework.
  • Precollege English/reading — Completed a developmental education curriculum review. Will pilot an accelerated learning program in Puyallup this winter. Will complete reading apprenticeship training this year — involving instruction of common reading strategies across all disciplines — with rollout anticipated next year. Began work on “norming” grading across English classes. Additionally, ENG 101 outcomes review will take place over the next year.

To learn more about ATD or to join the efforts at Pierce College, contact Tom McCollow or Tom Broxon, or subgroup coordinators: Greg Brazell (Engagement), Agnes Steward (Start 2 Finish), Lori Griffin (Basic Skills), Tom McCollow (Math) and Holly Smith (English/Reading).

Updates from the Subgroups

The Dev Ed Math subgroup is working on a number of things:1) Building “automaticity” (automatic knowledge of basic math facts) in pre-college math students; 2) Redesigning the Math lab at both campuses; 3) Incorporating a “Math Learning Center” in the Tutoring Center; 4) A plan to create a more seamless placement of new students into math classes based upon their high school coursework.

The Dev Ed English group is looking into making those courses more contextual and possibly aligning courses with college level courses that would complement the work that students are doing in the dev ed English courses. This group is also considering pre-college reading as a subject area. They want to pursue the Reading Apprenticeship Program as a professional development opportunity for faculty.

The Engagement group is focusing on engagement in three major areas: 1) In the classroom (students); 2) Out of the classroom (students); and 3) Employee to employee

The Start to Finish group is working on orientation, advising and the college success course. We talked about the fact that orientation is different at the two campuses; should we make it the same?, how do we assure that students participate?

The Advising section of this group is very involved in assessing the “Start to Finish” advising model, that is, transitioning students from Curriculum Advisors and FCAs to academic faculty to be advised. We talked about the Faculty learning Community’s work on the COLL 11 course and how is it going to be implemented as a requirement for students who test into 2 or more dev ed courses..

The Transitional Ed group identified two primary strategy areas: retention and transition. That is, how do we ensure that students who are taking trans ed courses continue to enroll?  And, once a trans ed student completes their course work (GED for example), how do we encourage them to transition to college courses?

 

A Tale of Two Toms

If you are looking for that spark of passion to help students succeed, go no further than the Achieving the Dream team co-chaired by Tom McCollow and Tom Broxson.

Pierce College is among 25 institutions selected last April to join the Achieving the Dream National Reform Network, the nation’s most comprehensive reform network for student success in higher education.

Both Toms volunteered to lead the Achieving the Dream initiative last year and have been running fast and furious ever since.

 

Tom-McCollow-sml-300x236“Simply put, Achieving the Dream is all about increasing student success in measurable ways,” said Math Instructor Tom McCollow, now known as “Core Tom” as he chairs the core team made up of the chancellor, presidents, vp’s, deans, professors, administrators, staff and students.  

As an Achieving the Dream institution, Pierce College will develop strategies, based on data, to help students flourish academically.  The college will then implement those strategies and evaluate their success.

Pierce College also has the opportunity to learn from other Achieving the Dream institutions, and receive assistance from experienced practitioners in building a culture of evidence campus-wide.  The evidence is not based on how many seats we fill, but on tracking if students are meeting their goals, and if not, identifying their barriers. 

“People get concerned that we are trying to introduce new language and procedures into our system, but much of it is stuff we are already doing.  It’s really nothing new; it’s just that now we are considering the data more comprehensively,” Core Tom said.  “Eventually, as we fine-tune the results, we will have moved the needle and it will all become engrained into our daily operations.”

 

Tom-Broxson-sml-300x219Tom Broxson, dean of Natural Sciences, is also known as “Data Tom” since he chairs the data team.

“This is the year of research,” Data Tom said.  ”We are looking at ourselves and trying to figure out what we can do that’s big enough to move the whole college. We need to identify the demographics that are having a harder time achieving their goals (completing courses and earning certificates and degrees) and develop strategies that will help affect these struggling groups.

It takes a campus community to make a graduate.  ”All of us at Pierce share responsibility and have an impact on student success. We need buy-in from everyone in our college district and we want to make sure we’re hearing their voices,” Data Tom, said.

To that end, the core team has identified four working sub-groups to improve Pierce College’s course completion, retention and completion rates.  And they need our help.

“Please think about joining one of these groups. We believe this work will make a real difference for our students.”, Core Tom said.  ”We know that everyone is very busy, but this work will be very worthwhile and will result in important change for us at Pierce College.”

Here are the working sub-groups with the person to contact for information about participating:

1)      The “Start to Finish” Model – Including Student Orientation, Advising, and College Success Course.  Contact Tom Broxson (tbroxson@pierce.ctc.edu)

2)      Transitional Education – Including ABE and ESL. Contact Kris Cummings (kycummings@pierce.ctc.edu)

3)      Pre-College Math.  Contact Tom McCollow (tmccollow@pierce.ctc.edu)

4)      Pre-College English. Contact Deb Gilchrist (dgilchrist@pierce.ctc.edu)

5)      Engagement – Including student engagement, student expectations,  professional development, college communication. Contact Greg Brazell (gbrazell@pierce.ctc.edu)

The groups will begin meeting as soon as this week for the next several weeks. Their work needs to be done by mid- to late April.

“This is not about Achieving the Dream, and it’s not about teaching,” Core Tom said. “It’s about student learning!”

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