College Begins “Year of Introspection”

In an effort to remove barriers and help underserved students succeed, Jackson State Community College introduced the Achieving the Dream initiative during a campus-wide kickoff as the new spring semester began. The focus of the initiative is to collect data for evidence-based decisions to understand obstacles to graduation and improve the campus experience, especially for first-generation, low-income and non-traditional students.

Billed as “a year of introspection,” 2016 will be a year for authentic and transparent conversations about all of the ways that the faculty and staff of JSCC help students achieve their dreams. Conversations will be guided with data gathered through Institutional Research. Working together, everyone will look for ways to ensure everything is being done to remove the barriers that keep students from being successful.

ATD coaches Dr. Steven Murray and Dr. Charles Van Middlesworth were on campus during in-service to meet with all faculty and staff over a two-day period. Their goal during the in-service kickoff was to help initiate the yearlong conversation and give some clarity to what ATD is and is not. The meetings brought to light some of the issues that need to be discussed and certainly led to conversations that were, at times, quite spirited.

The school was one of 16 community and technical colleges invited in 2015 to participate in the Achieving the Dream National Reform Network after an application supported by Gov. Bill Haslam. The nonprofit organization is a comprehensive non-governmental reform movement for student success that includes more that 200 colleges in 35 states. Jackson State and Roane State in Harriman are the only two from Tennessee.

“This is a fantastic opportunity,” said Heather Freeman, administrative assistant to the president at Jackson State. “All of our students face a lot of different challenges. We want them to come to Jackson State, and we want them to be successful in whatever career they choose.”

Freeman serves as the Executive Team leader for Achieving the Dream. She joined other team members from Jackson State in Cincinnati last summer at the Achieving the Dream Kickoff Institute where they were introduced to the program and its abundant resources.

Those resources will be available to faculty members as they develop new strategies to assist students. Kimberly Todd, director of Jackson State’s radiography program and faculty representative on the Executive Team, said instructors will benefit from research and data cultivated at other colleges.

“Achieving the Dream is the perfect resource for us to share ideas and best practices,” Todd said. “Our faculty are 100 percent dedicated to finding ways to deeply engage our students, and we are more than happy to take a look at new and innovative strategies in the classroom to help students succeed.”

Faculty members are a critical element to Achieving the Dream at Jackson State. Todd said while every employee plays a role in student success, instructors develop important relationships with students during classroom interactions that supports their education in the most important ways.

“Student success is going to be a collaborative effort across campus,” Todd said. “But emphasizing and developing learner-centered pedagogies practiced in the classroom will prove essential in helping students reach their goals.”

The first year of the Achieving the Dream program is meant to be introspective – the school will begin gathering data to determine issues on campus that can be addressed. “We’ll take a look at the cold, hard data that we have and try to make informed decisions based on that information,” Freeman said. “That discussion is going to lead us to the next steps.”

Sara Cooper-Vonderheide, director of institutional research and accountability at Jackson State, serves as the school’s Data Team leader for Achieving the Dream. Her group will develop and analyze data in order to determine specific issues that provide roadblocks to student success and whether specific populations are underserved.

“When you start looking at student data, it can get very complex very quickly,” Cooper-Vonderheide said. “Our purpose is to inform the campus of what’s actually going on, and we have to make everyone understand the data we’re providing because you’ve got to have a huge buy-in.”

Bobby Smith, vice president for student success and institutional effectiveness at Jackson State, is the Core Team leader for Achieving the Dream. The school serves a diverse community in West Tennessee, and its mission is to help all of its students succeed. But it is crucial to understand the difference between equity and equality when it comes to student achievement, he said.

“We tend to operate in an equality mindset in order to provide equal treatment,” he said. “But instead of treating everybody the same with a one-size-fits all mentality, we want to find ways to look at students as individuals. They may not start off at the same place, but we want them to end up at the same place.”

Cooper-Vonderheide agreed. She said student success is everyone’s responsibility, and Achieving the Dream will help Jackson State address individual students with varying barriers to success. “We really need to look at what we can do to ensure students can be successful – but also so they know they can be successful,” she said.

To be accepted into the Achieving the Dream National Reform Network, colleges are required to demonstrate a commitment to spend at least three years working with network experts. They must also be committed to implementing reforms designed to improve student achievement and completion rates.

John McCommon, marketing and public relations coordinator for Jackson State, serves as the Communication Team leader, and he will work to explain the program, its data and emerging recommendations to various constituencies on campus. Achieving the Dream aligns with state educational initiatives, such as Tennessee Promise and Drive to 55, which seek to increase the number of students who enter college and earn a degree, he said. It will help students complete their degrees and become productive members of the workforce.

“Achieving the Dream is about developing an evidenced-based culture so our decisions are based on hard data as opposed to gut feelings,” McCommon said. “It’s really critical for us to figure out how we can help students succeed.”