Pierce College makes strong showing at annual Achieving the Dream conference

Achieving the Dreams 2014 annual Institute on Student Success.As an Achieving the Dream leader college, Pierce is committed to finding new and innovative ways to increase the success of all students. The college recently sent 22 employees to the Achieving the Dream annual Institute on Student Success in Baltimore to learn about new ways they can help more community college students succeed. Continue reading

Pierce College – Leading the Way

DSC_0617Achieving the Dream announced today that Pierce College is one of 16 community colleges selected for the 2014 cohort of Achieving the Dream Leader Colleges – a national designation awarded to community colleges that commit to improving student success and closing achievement gaps.

“We are excited about the achievement gains we’ve made in a short period of time, and we remain committed to helping students complete their education goals,” said Chancellor Michele Johnson. “We are honored to be selected as a leader college.”

Achieving the Dream performed an extensive review of specified practice and performance activities. Pierce College has shown how data can inform policy and practice to help community college students achieve their goals, resulting in improved skills, better employability, and economic growth for families, communities, and the nation as a whole.

A few highlights of how Pierce College is raising the bar to better serve its students include improving overall retention rates of new, degree-seeking state-supported students. Between the 2009-10 and 2012-13 academic years, fall-to-fall retention rates increased from 53.4 percent to 58.1 percent. Overall fall-to-winter retention rates have also increased from 80.6 percent in 2010-11 to 84.9 percent in 2013-14. Since fall 2010, the overall completion rate in all precollege math courses has steadily increased, from 57.3 percent to 65.2 percent in Fall 2013.

Even more notable is that every demographic assessed (race/ethnicity, gender, Pell Grant recipient and first generation) experienced increases between 2011-12 and 2012-13.

“The work of improving student success is critically important to our education and economy,” said Carol Lincoln, Achieving the Dream Senior Vice President. “Pierce College has demonstrated that better student outcomes are possible when an institution focuses on policies and practices that help students learn at high levels and overcome challenges life throws at them. Pierce College is working hard to move the needle for whole cohorts of students, and deserves recognition for its relentless efforts and promising achievements.”

The 2014 Leader Colleges are making strides in the national movement to increase student completion and close achievement gaps, demonstrating the power of the Achieving the Dream Approach. With the guidance of Achieving the Dream coaches, colleges not only systemically change the way they operate, but also implement key student supports that align with their overall policies and institutional systems, such as college readiness programs, mandatory new student orientation, student-success courses, developmental course redesign, curriculum redesign, and intensive, individualized advising.

Find out more information about how Leader Colleges are showing sustained improvement on Achieving the Dream’s five measures of student success.

Achieving the Dream grants Leader College designation for three-year cycles. After three years, institutions must undergo a recertification process to maintain Leader College status. Since 2009, Achieving the Dream has granted Leader College status to a total of 79 active Achieving the Dream Institutions.


New computer-based math labs help students save time and money

helpinginlabEditWhen students enroll in a math lab at Pierce College it allows them to independently complete classwork at their own speed in the math level they placed in. Thanks to a new software program introduced by Math Professor Melonie Rasmussen, these students can now take advantage of customized guidance to complete their math requirements at their own pace.

With the implementation of the program, called Aleks 360, Rasmussen is making important changes in support of Achieving the Dream (ATD) efforts to help students stay in school and complete their degrees. The program operates much like a skilled human tutor, and assesses students’ math knowledge, delivering targeted instruction on the exact topics they are ready to learn.

“A lot of students need the flexibility of the math lab because they have kids or other pressing responsibilities,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen spent an entire quarter researching programs for students to use in the math lab and chose to implement Aleks 360. The program provides students with more personalized instruction. The program features video tutorials, e-books and additional step-by-step instruction for each chapter.

In the past year, two students have used Aleks 360 to complete the requirements for four developmental math courses, and were ready to register for college-level math after only one quarter.

After testing Aleks 360 for a year, passing rates improved by 25 percent, according to Rasmussen.

“Those two students who managed to do that only paid for five credits instead of 20 credits,” Rasmussen said. “That’s what bought us into the program.”

Story by Holly Buchanan

‘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.