Summer Institute explores ways to close student achievement gaps
The Division of Faculty Support held its 17th annual Summer Institute for faculty and staff at the Macon Cove Campus, May 20-23. The Institute featured a week-long lineup of sessions about new ways to help Southwest students succeed. This year’s conference was organized around the theme of addressing achievement disparities by creating a culture of equity to improve student success, especially among African-American students.
Association of American Colleges and Universities Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Student Success Dr. Tia McNair was one of the keynote speakers. She says community colleges need to focus on being ‘student-ready’ and understanding who their students are and the circumstances from which they arise. “Student-ready means we are looking at our policies and procedures,” McNair said. “We are saying, ‘are we ready for the students we seek to educate and the students that we admit?’”
McNair also stressed that understanding factors like race and poverty is crucial to identifying and removing barriers to student success, especially in marginalized or under-served populations. Southwest’s student population is 62 percent African-American and has a 10-point disparity between black and white students when it comes to passing gateway courses. “If they are having difficulty with those gateway courses, their ability to persist is going to have an impact on their ability to graduate across the board,” McNair said
McNair said Southwest has already embraced a number of equity strategies to improve student achievement like Focus 2020, Achieving the Dream, the Student Success Council, Teaching Academy, and the Center for High Impact and Innovation. However, McNair says it is going to take targeted efforts and an institutional mind shift to achieve equity. “It is shifting our mindset to saying ‘well, if we admitted them to this institution, what are the wraparound services they need?’
Dr. Steven Murray, Chancellor Emeritus at Phillips County Community College in Helena-West Helena, shared how his institution tackled the issue of race and generational poverty to achieve more equitable results among its African-American students. The college is 51 percent African-American and shares many of the same characteristics as Southwest.
Murray said when he became chancellor in 2003, he had no idea what his college’s story was or what it would be. But with a declining enrollment, shrinking state funding, and low achievement and graduation rates, he knew they couldn’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. “We were going to create a new story,” Murray said. “We would become a better community college.”
Murray says they made two key decisions. One was to confront race and poverty head on, a daunting undertaking. “You can create strategies. You can develop programs. You can have initiatives,” Murray said. “But if you don’t attack the underlying cultural issues, as (management guru Peter) Drucker says, culture will eat strategies for breakfast.”
Murray said they also learned that they could not change the characteristics their students bring with them to college. But what they could change was how they respond as a college to those characteristics. He shared a story about a faculty member who complained about a student who was late to class about half of the time. He says a staff member who knew the student better, told the instructor the reason the student was late for her 8 a.m. class was because she has two small children to get to day care and has to walk to catch a city van to get to class because she doesn’t have transportation. Murray said that was a critical moment for them. “Her morning was a house of cards,” Murray said. “And almost always that house of cards collapsed before she could get to that first class. If we as an institution did a better job advising, we wouldn’t have put her in an 8 a.m. class. We couldn’t change the characteristics that she brought with her. But we could change how we as a college responded to those characteristics.”
Murray said their second decision was that if they wanted their students to be successful, they had to own every obstacle to their success. “Many of our students, if not most, drop out not for academic reasons,” Murray said. “They had a reasonable GPA. Many dropped out for non-academic reasons. Life got in the way.”
Southwest President Dr. Tracy D. Hall said Southwest is doing many of the things that Phillips Community College put in place to address disparities and create a culture of equity. “What Phillips is doing is exactly the type of work we are embarking on,” Hall said. “We are taking a deep dive into this kind of equity.”
Hall related an experience she had as part of the Leadership Memphis Class of 2019. She was assigned to Fairley High School in Whitehaven. When she arrived to give her presentation on class day, Hall said she was shocked to find that the library at Fairley had empty book shelves and that the librarian didn’t know what PowerPoint was. “I walked in to what they said was the library,” Hall said. “It was just this big empty room. There were no actual books for students to check out.”
Collierville High School, on the other hand, where her son goes to school, just built a brand new $90 million high school replete with a modern, bright, open library like you would find at a college. She said the difference between the two schools left an emotional impression on her. “That has stuck with me because it is a visual representation of what we experience when you look at the fact that our students come to us from very different environments and very different experiences,” Hall said. “Inequitable conditions foster achievement gaps.”
Hall said running a community college like an emergency room where everyone who comes through the door receives the same treatment regardless of what’s wrong with them, isn’t treating students equitably. “We want to be treated equitably because we know that when we go to the doctor, you aren’t the same as me. I’m different. My physiological makeup is different,” Hall said. “You don’t give the same treatment.” She said that doesn’t mean lowering academic standards to achieve equity. Instead, Southwest needs to make sure the student population can be successful at the next level.
Addressing equity is important not only for social reasons, but economic reasons as well, Hall added. Companies are attracted to cities that have an educated workforce. “So if this doesn’t get you because it is a heart thing, or a mind thing, it’s a money thing,” Hall said. “We have to change our culture and make sure we are closing those gaps so African-American students graduate ready for the next level or ready to go to work so employers see the quality of a Southwest graduate. This can be us. It will be us.”