NEW YORK—More than 1200 educators converged on the Big Apple earlier this week to discuss ways to cultivate innovation at the community college level.
The League for Innovation in the Community College — an international nonprofit focused on student success and institutional excellence — used their annual conference to encourage college administrators, staff and faculty to think outside of the box in developing bold new initiatives for their students.
“Community Colleges are the Ellis Island of the 21st century,” said Dr. Karrin E. Wilks, interim president of Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City.
Although many of the nation’s community colleges are diverse, students who attend them often face a number of financial, food and housing insecurities.
During a session titled, “Student Success Poverty Champions: Perspectives on Noncognitive Retention Efforts,” a panel of experts from Texas community colleges noted that while many schools across the nation have resources and student services professionals on hands, many students are never made aware of them.
At Amarillo College, faculty and staff became “poverty experts,” said Anette Carlisle, a zoologist who is on Amarillo’s Board of Regents.
By focusing on emergency aid, food pantry, clothing closet and social services, she said that the college has been able to help address students’ poverty concerns and thus improve student retention.
Over a three-year period, Amarillo’s retention rates went from 19 percent to 48 percent.
“Our goal is 70 percent by 2020,” said Carlisle. “When we started this work in 2003, 2020 was a long time away. It’s not a long way now.”
Lisa Black, an associate professor of counseling at San Antonio College said that discussions about poverty at community colleges is often uncomfortable.
“It is not something that people like to talk about,” she said, adding that a committee at San Antonio College created poverty maps to better assess the financial situation of its 60,000 students.
“When retention becomes the goal, faculty get frustrated about why students are not staying in the class,” said Black, who noted that San Antonio College took an all-hands on deck approach to tackle the growing epidemic.
“Don’t wait for a strategic plan or budget,” she told her peers from other colleges looking to jumpstart initiatives on their campus. “We created it along the way.”
Mark Butland, a professor of communications at Austin Community College District said that having faculty integrated in addressing poverty issues has proven successful at his institution.
“Students spend more time in week with faculty then they do with student services all semester,” said Butland, who added that faculty now include a statement on their syllabi about wraparound services that the college offers.
“Faculty are learning about it and they’re having to talk to their students about it,” said Butland.
At Amarillo, administrators have completed focus groups with their students to find out why they are dropping out and why they are stopping out of school. The college, which one the Leah Meyer Austin Award last week at the Achieving the Dream conference has been lauded for its No Excuses Poverty Initiative.
At San Antonio College, officials have forged strong partnerships with local nonprofits, churches and utility companies to help provide relief for students.
Last year, the college had more than 1200 visits to its food pantry, forcing administrators to expand its services.
The work, however is not easy.
“If you’re just getting started, try not to be transactional with your students but relational,” said Black. “What students need is a relationship with someone who can say, ‘It’s okay. I’m here for you.’”
Jamal Watson can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson
This article first appeared in Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.