Getting It Right the First Time

WASHINGTON — Starting an educational institution from scratch is a hard task. But it does have its advantages. Just ask the founding set of administrators and instructors at the Community College of the District of Columbia, which wrapped up its first academic year a few months ago.

July 13, 2010

WASHINGTON — Starting an educational institution from scratch is a hard task. But it does have its advantages. Just ask the founding set of administrators and instructors at the Community College of the District of Columbia, which wrapped up its first academic year a few months ago.

They believe the institution's relative newness — and therefore its lack of entrenched faculty and staff — give them the ideal opportunity to implement the academic and administrative practices considered likeliest to improve student success. Though college officials hope to create an institution where data collection is an everyday occurrence and nearly all academic decisions are based on that evidence, they have to get substantial buy-in from faculty and staff, who haven’t had enough time to become entrenched but have plenty of preconceived notions of their own about teaching and learning.

“We have some barriers to break down internally,” acknowledges Jonathan Gueverra, the college’s founding chief executive officer. “Even if you have the luxury of bringing in all new people, you have the problem of trying to present before them a blank slate and then showing them what we want done. The one thing I know about all faculty is that they recognize the need for students to succeed. Using data and knowledge, we want to provide them with that springboard.”

So far, the community college has only 37 full-time faculty members and well over 100 adjuncts. Many of them came directly from teaching at the University of the District of Columbia — the troubled land-grant that, for ages, was the city’s lone public institution. Now, it is the incubation site for the new community college until it moves across town and becomes a freestanding institution.

Marilyn A. Hamilton, the college’s Achieving the Dream program coordinator and an early childhood education instructor, is among those at the new community college leading the push for data integration at all levels. Currently, she is working with professors across disciplines to infuse technology into their teaching.

For example, she hopes that by finding a way to gauge students' work over the length of a course, instructors will be able to identify the areas in which students are deficient before gaps in learning grow. Then, using everything from online games to YouTube, students can walk themselves through tutorials to catch up on whatever specific course material they still don’t understand, instead of sorting through everything all over again.

“Every discipline at the college is up for program review,” Hamilton says. “We’re helping faculty design their courses in a way that is more interactive and so that it is clear to students what the expectations are. We want to embed that technology into the course delivery to build a culture of evidence. This should be able to help students be even more successful in discipline-specific courses as well as remediation.”

As part of the college’s curriculum review, each course’s objectives must align with its student outcomes. Hamilton noted that for certain courses, this means a capstone experience where there was none, or a new set of exams. Many of the courses at the community college were given in the first two years at UDC and so are now being adapted for the new institution. For her early childhood education courses, students will now have to create a portfolio of their work throughout the semester, much like their counterparts at the baccalaureate level do.

“It’s all about changing the mindset of people,” Hamilton says. “It’s not so much starting from scratch, but introducing people to a new way of doing business. Some of them having been teaching the same way for 20 years, and they have their own way of doing things. We have to be more data-driven. Some are already there, and others will have to be brought along kicking and screaming.”

So far, though, Hamilton says the transition among faculty who came to the community college from UDC has been relatively smooth. And though two semesters' worth of data is hardly enough to make any concrete judgments about the institution and its students, the initial retention numbers are pleasing to Gueverra and his team.

For example, the college retained 70 percent of its 688 first-time freshman students who enrolled last fall to the spring semester. But this figure doesn't tell much about the institution given that most comparable data sets compare fall-to-fall retention instead of fall-to-spring retention. Of these first-time freshmen, 82 percent required at least some remediation.

Reforming remediation and further boosting retention also depends heavily on data collection. Gueverra notes that college staff members made over 400 phone calls in the past week to reach the first-time freshmen who did not return to the college, find out what happened, and adapt remedial coursework to future students’ needs based on what they heard. The same team of student support staffers is also blanket testing all incoming students in need of remediation as well.

“If we do this right, we’ll know at some point what we’re doing to make a dent to stem the number of students in developmental education,” Gueverra said. “We’re also going to assess every student up front, as early as possible, and alert faculty members to begin to provide them with information about their students that’ll help them succeed.”

If Gueverra and company are unsure whether they’ve made an impact on the way their existing faculty and staff go about their business at the new community college, they will certainly leave their mark on all newly recruited professors to the institution.

“All new faculty must be familiar with an assessment of student learning,” says Jacqueline Skinner Jackson, dean of academic affairs. “They must be familiar with online learning and must be familiar with instructional technology. We want those skills embedded into the culture to feed student success."

New Take on Work Force Education

When C. Vannessa Spinner, the college’s associate dean for workforce development, was told by Guevarra that he would like there to be no divide between the workforce and academic sides of the new community college, she responded with a resounding, “Hallelujah!” she recalls

The way Spinner sees it, too many community colleges operate with highly bifurcated missions, pushing academic and workforce development faculty, staff and students apart from one another when they could be best served by working together. So, at the new community college, workforce development is operating differently.

First, the college shed programs like barbering, cosmetology and any unattached apprenticeship work — programs that had been offered by UDC — that did not result in an industry-recognized certificate or credential. Then, it began adopting stackable credentials for fields like nursing, so that students earn progressively greater certification as they go along. For example, a nursing student is certified as a home health aide and then a nursing assistant while working toward an associate degree in nursing. With this approach, students are guaranteed at least some credential if they have to stop out, or can work in jobs with advanced-salary potential as they continue on their career pathway.

Photo: David Moltz / Inside Higher Ed

Additionally, Spinner notes that all workforce development students are now earning college credit for their work, whether they are aware of it or not. All workforce development programs at the college also have embedded basic academic training, improving the students' reading and math skills as they learn job-specific skills, and eventually making them eligible for credit-bearing work. Washington State’s much-lauded Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (or I-BEST) program, an initiative aimed at helping “underserved students,” was cited as the model for this method.

“I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘You’re going to have to complete four years’ worth of literacy work before you can take a job training program to assist you to help your family,' ” Gueverra said.

A Promising Start

Students who have been around Washington long enough to see the ups and downs at UDC — whose graduation rate has hovered below 20 percent and is among the lowest in the country — are pleased with their time at the new community college and believe it could have a positive impact on the city.

Ricardo White, a 49-year-old who recently graduated with an associate degree in early childhood education, says he hardly noticed the transition of his program from UDC to the community college last year, noting that his professors fully explained the change and helped students figure out what it meant for them. The new attitude of fellow students, faculty and staff at the new institution, he says, is a far cry from what he saw two decades ago when he came to UDC right out of high school to become a paralegal — and eventually dropped out because of a lack of support from his professors.

“I just felt like I was given the cold shoulder,” White says of the faculty and staff he encountered at UDC in the 1980s. “People are changing. There are so many highly motivated people and there is so much more community involvement. Just being here, you can tell the commitment the community college has to your success. This is where change starts. I think it can change Washington.”

Michelle Adams, a 42-year-old community college student in early childhood education, echoes her classmate’s sentiment. She, too, dropped out of UDC in the mid-1980s when she enrolled there right out of high school, but now says her experience is much more positive.

Adams says she was anxious about her program — which she enrolled in while it was still part of UDC — moving to the new community college, but says the change has helped her focus on her career goals.

“When I first heard about the change, I said ‘What’s to become of me?’ ” Adams says. “I had this fear that I was going to be too old for a community college. I thought I was going to be the only [student my age] here, but when I started I realized there were a lot of people like me. It’s been great to be so focused and so open with one another.”

Both White and Adams hope their success at the new community college will inspire their friends and family to attend and further their education. The opportunity for D.C. residents to attend a community college in their own city, they say, has been a long time coming.


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