08/27/06 — College dreams come true

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College dreams come true

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 27, 2006 2:04 AM

For some Wayne County low-income families, going to college is not a given, but because of a program at Wayne Community College, that dream is now a possibility.

"Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count," a new initiative designed to enhance the academic success of low-income and minority students, was introduced in 2004 by Lumina Foundation for Education. Wayne Community College is one of the 35 community colleges in seven states participating.

Wayne Community will use the $400,000 in grant money to support students that have traditionally faced the most obstacles. The grant runs through June 2009, with the possibility that it could be extended if the program is deemed a success.

In some respects, officials say, it's like offering a "success coach." At the community college level, where non-traditional students can often be found in abundance, the smaller arena offers more individualized attention.

"Achieving the Dream has allowed us to move to the next level. This allows us to expand and focus in areas that we have tried to focus on, to sustain it for four years and integrate it through our culture," said Bill Thompson, director of planning and research at Wayne Community.

Colleges like Wayne Community have made commitments to increase the percentage of students who complete a course of study, earn a C or higher, re-enroll from one semester to the next and earn certificates or degrees. The goal is to shore up student skills and ensure students complete their education. The grant covers staff development and hiring a consultant for data collection, while a coach works with the college staff to keep them on track.

There has long been a gap between educational progress of white students and students of color, said Dr. Kay Albertson, vice president for academic affairs.

"Retention is a major plan that all parts of Achieving the Dream is looking at -- attracting students, access to students who would not have had access in the past," she said.

"We have the data to prove that we have more Caucasian students persevere. We want the minority students to have equal access and equal opportunity."

With each community college having its own unique identity, it is important to introduce programs that mesh with the population served, Dr. Albertson said. One program begun at Wayne Community is the Minority Male Mentoring Group, or 3MG.

Ray Burrell, division head for business and computer technologies, works with the group. He said the hands-on effort of helping students in the pursuit of academic, career and social success has produced positive results.

"We got a little more involved with time management, teambuilding, study skills and communication, parenting. We had 87 percent of those guys finish their classes and register for spring semester," he said. "Otherwise, we feel like we would have lost two or three of those individuals if we had not had that program in place."

A female mentoring group is also planned in the future, Dr. Albertson said.

Students are also beginning to respond to other efforts at the college, officials say, particularly in the areas of financial aid, contact with counselors and placement tests to determine performance level.

For years, the median age of a Wayne Community student was 29, but data is now showing their typical student to be between 17 and 24 years old, Dr. Albertson said.

The college tracks the percentage of students that come from Wayne County Public Schools, said Yvonne Goodman, associate vice president for student services. Currently, an estimated 35 percent of graduates from the school system go on to attend Wayne Community, Mrs. Goodman said.

They are also using data to track students' weaknesses, which will be helpful as officials collaborate with school systems previously attended by students. Providing school districts with such information could be instrumental in closing some of the gaps, Dr. Albertson said.

"For the first time we're collecting those statistics on how those students do when they come to us. We're following a cohort of students to see their success rate, their retention rates. The whole initiative is that students complete a college course of study," she said.

Providing financial support is not always enough to retain students, Mrs. Goodman said. A number of students who received aid chose not to come back for the spring semester, she said, prompting a survey to see what else could be done to encourage them to return.

"We wanted to make sure that we're doing what we need to do to make the students successful," she said. "We're talking more. We're asking more questions."

Grants like Achieving the Dream will go beyond the local level, she added.

"It's much bigger. It also focuses on public policy changes, policies that directly affect students," she said.

Its importance has caused educators at the college to start thinking in a broader sense. To further support the effort, Wayne Community added other funds to increase such areas as professional development.

"In total, for just looking at probably a half dozen things that we're doing over the next four years, we have put in almost $1 million. We're committed to this," Dr. Albertson said. "To look at student success, professional growth on the part of the faculty and staff, we want to close that achievement gap by increasing and improving all of our services here."

It takes a lot of hard work, Thompson said. But in terms of what graduates can earn and give back to the local economy, the community college is a major economic-generating machine, he said.

"We will capitalize on our success," he said. "We're pretty motivated. We're excited, but not so blind to realize that this is a small methodical approach. It's something that occurs over time."

If Wayne Community can see even a 1 percent increase, it will be worth it, he said.

"When you deal with people's issues -- not ready to go to college, family pressures -- there's a lot of them that have to stay out, regroup and go back in later," he said.

Dr. Albertson said the bottom line for measuring whether the college does a good job is in its student success rate.

"My dream for all this is that every strategy, every practice, every part of the initiative for Achieving the Dream doesn't have a label on it, that five years down the road no one is going to say, 'Oh, yeah, you're doing that for Achieving the Dream,'" she said. "It becomes who you are and what we do and it's not associated with any pot of money. It's just part of who we are at Wayne Community College."