A multidisciplinary group at Los Medanos College is involved in a comprehensive equity initiative expected to improve retention and transfer rates for students of color attending the East Bay campus about 40 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The team has been working hard to implement an intense, research-based approach called the Equity Scorecard™ developed by USC’s Center for Urban Education (CUE) and based at the USC Rossier School of Education. The center has been involved with the Hispanic-Serving Institution – part of the Contra Costa Community College District – since September 2009.
The scorecard approach centers on a college “evidence team” made up of faculty members and other staff, which uses data broken down by race and ethnicity to identify barriers to student success and to pinpoint areas for improvement.
The method, which essentially trains college instructors to become “action-researchers,” was developed almost 10 years ago by Estela Mara Bensimon, CUE co-director and professor of higher education at USC.
Bensimon’s philosophy is that campuses must acknowledge and change institutional practices that interfere with student achievement. She described evidence team members as individuals willing to commit their time voluntarily to a process that has been demanding and without compensation.
“It shows that there are dedicated, committed faculty members and that opportunities have to be made to tap their potential to be leaders of change,” Bensimon said. “The opportunity we created for the team was a structure that is interdisciplinary and that engages them in a collaborative research activity. They are doing something productive. They are not just meeting for the sake of meeting.”
Project outcomes can range from a larger equity focus to institution-wide policy changes. At Los Medanos, the team’s work in the last year culminated in inquiries about an introductory English course and the matriculation process. In the year to come, team members will be examining transfer-level courses, as well as student services.
Karl Debro, a member of the evidence team and the Advancement Via Individual Determination program coordinator for the campus, believed CUE researchers were going to come on campus, collect data about the school and then present a scorecard on how it measured up to different standards. His assumption quickly was proved wrong.
“[CUE] is not coming in to study the school themselves,” Debro said. “They are training us to look at our own data, study it and think about what can be done to make change for the better. Estela talks about best practices versus ‘best practitioners.’ CUE wants to develop best practitioners so we can do the work ourselves.”
Thus far, more than 25 two- and four-year colleges in eight states, including California, have implemented the inquiry-based action research on their campuses.
The Los Medanos team found disturbing results after examining its student data more closely. For instance, the team learned that 50 percent of first-time students of color were leaving after their first semester. Some students were not enrolling in transfer-level courses even when they had been successful in the preparation course.
After seeing these daunting results, some individuals felt overwhelmed with the enormity of the task ahead, while others were inclined to jump right in and quickly enact changes. Debro was one of those in the latter group, but he learned that it makes more sense to tread carefully and not jump to any conclusions.
“You need to be successful in what you do so people will support the process,” Debro said. “If you run out and try something and it’s a big flop, you’re not going to be able to try many more things after that.”
Joellen Hiltbrand, an English instructor and a member of the evidence team, said she has been inspired by CUE’s skill in training fellow faculty members.
“It wasn’t just like they are coming in and telling us what they know and leaving,” she said. “Their skill involves building skill sets so we can go through this whole process, facilitate tricky conversations and build more teams around the campus.”
Hiltbrand acknowledges it’s a lot of work but believes it’s all worth it.
“When you see the systemic, decades-long, inequity of educational outcomes for groups of students, I don’t see any ethical argument for not doing this,” she said. “It’s just not an option. The work just needs to get done. The situation needs to change.”
The entire experience has been eye-opening for former Los Medanos College president Peter Garcia. Recently appointed the new president of sister college Diablo Valley, Garcia became an integral part of the team early on. He made it his priority to attend all meetings and was instrumental in moving the entire process forward.
“As a community college president, I have an obligation to ensure all students are successful,” Garcia said. “If a large number of students are not progressing through basic skills courses and moving on to transfer level courses, we as an institution need to figure out what is happening and why. We need to find out what are those obstacles impeding progress and make change happen institution-wide.”