Well ahead of the state-wide tide, an energetic core at Columbia College began evaluating how well the school served basic skills students. From the beginning, Academic Wellness Educators (AWE) included faculty and student services staff, initiating a culture of integration and collaboration. A report by five faculty members offers a concise description of AWE's orientation: "Academic wellness implies a broad approach to student learning and support. It is proactive, pervasive, and holistic, much as wellness is to health."
Everyone on campus had a stake in this. Financial aid counselors wanted to know why students couldn’t fill out forms, faculty wanted to know why students ignored placement advice, and everyone worried that enrollment-driven funding made it hard to maintain basic skills programs. As the group clarified its objectives, the Basic Skills Initiative was launched, validating their instincts. Then in January 2007, a new president arrived. “It was like unleashing lightening,” said one member of Hewlett’s visiting team.
Leadership and Support
President Joan Smith saw AWE’s proposals for instructional skills workshops, curriculum changes, student learning outcomes, disability resources, institutional research, distance education and more, and quickly threw in her support. “They had done all the planning and knew what had to be done. They were just waiting to scale up. That requires resources and institutional commitment – that’s the leadership they were waiting for. How could I not support that?”
Columbia Community College
by the numbers
56 Percent full-time
27 Percent over age 49
56 Associate degree programs
49 Certificate programs
51 Full-time faculty
152 Part-time/Adjunct faculty
Source: Columbia College website and public relations office
Curriculum Aligned for Effectiveness
By all accounts the results are thrilling for everyone involved. Retention is well above the state average, and improvement in basic skills is rising. For the first time the college now has a full-time institutional researcher, a priority of AWE’s strategic planning. Faculty across disciplines have created infused models of instruction. The pilot course, Payroll Acounting, was a natural for teaching contextual math.This kind of collaboration requires a willingness to shelve old ways of doing things. And that sometimes requires a real leap of faith.
The effects of these efforts are far-reaching. Reforms conceived for developmental education have energized the campus-wide culture. Professor Ann Cavagnaro infuses writing challenges into every level of her math classes, “I defy you to find a strategy effective with basic skills that is not effective for every student.” One of her trigonometry assignments requires a narrative about getting a long log around a corner. Putting math principles into a concrete context leads her students to mastery. Equally important, it deepens Cavagnaro’s own understanding of her students’ learning process.
Columbia has fewer than 3,500 students, a size that inclines it, perhaps, toward a certain nimbleness and flexibility. AWE is moving into a second generation. A visionary co-founder retired and the membership has shifted, yet its pace continues. This indicates the sustainability of Columbia’s model, which depends in large part on the distributed leadership that engages talents at so many levels.