Are We There Yet?

Four Years of Achieving the Dream

Achieving the Dream (ATD) is the largest non-government initiative in community college history and was on the front of Chancellor Erma Johnson-Hadley’s mind when Joy Gates Black, vice chancellor of academic affairs and student success, joined TCC in 2010. As Hadley and Black discussed the importance of ATD, both were amazed that TCC was the last large community college in Texas to join the movement. The ATD network now includes more than 130 institutions in 24 states and the District of Columbia, reaching more than 1 million students.

When Hadley attended the American Association of Community Colleges meeting on the west coast that same year, ATD staff encouraged her to apply. "Some people did not think we needed ATD to help us make changes, but sometimes you need an external perspective and accountability pushing you to change," Black said.

Four Year Plan
YEAR 1 Gather and analyze data on student outcomes; Research best practices; Consult with experts and other institutions; Attend seminars and workshops; Prepare and share summary reports of findings with our team of committed leaders
YEAR 2 Propose a Districtwide model; Engage committed faculty and staff; Determine policies and procedures; Develop training; Train faculty and staff
YEAR 3 Evaluate student success; Make adjustments to models and procedures as necessary; Implementation of interventions
YEAR 4 Evaluate student success interventions; Make adjustments to models and procedures as necessary; Data theme focus: retention in fall and graduation in spring

Hadley returned with a mission: TCC would gain ATD status, showing the College is dedicated to identifying strategies to improve student success, close achievement gaps and increase student retention, persistence and completion rates. With the support of the Chancellor’s Executive Leadership Team (CELT), Black and Jaqueline Maki, associate vice chancellor for grants development, immediately began writing TCC’s original proposal to become an ATD college.

With student success as the centerpiece of TCC’s Vision 2015 Strategic Plan, TCC could not have chosen a better time to join the nationwide movement. "We were still functioning under our mission of access, but it has since broadened to include access and success. ATD helped us refocus ourselves on why we exist," Black said. TCC made an initial two-year commitment to focus on closing performance gaps among student sub-groups, including students of color and low-income students.

Setting Our Priorities

Colleges must commit to the ATD Student-Centered Model of Institutional Improvement, which includes five principles that help colleges transform themselves: committed leadership, use of evidence to improve programs and services, broad engagement, systemic institutional improvement and equity. Each college approaches the work differently, but ATD provides practical guidelines for keeping the focus where it belongs: to help more students earn post-secondary credentials, including occupational certificates and degrees. Since community college students often take several years to earn certificates or degrees, ATD works with institutions to improve student progression through intermediate milestones.

Once TCC committed to join ATD, the next step was to make an in-depth assessment of student outcomes, identify barriers and opportunities for improvement and articulate those that should be addressed as priorities of focus for the next four years. "TCC set these priorities by using a data-driven decision model to identify student achievement gaps and effectively measure outcomes," said James Ramirez, director of student success initiatives.

TCC reviewed five years of cohort data, as well as data gathered from campus leadership when each president asked their teams, "What keeps our students from succeeding?" Alma Martinez-Egger, director of employee online learning, who was interim director of student success at the time, said they conducted student focus groups and had conversations about how to eliminate achievement gaps and improve student outcomes with faculty, community leaders, staff and administrators. Qualitative and quantitative data were collected, analyzed and divided into categories to establish initiatives. From these initiatives, TCC established its ATD priorities. (See sidebar.)

Dedicated Teams

To implement these priorities, TCC has taken bold steps to create polices that nurture and support student success, with the engagement of faculty, staff and administrators. Collectively, these committed professionals worked to identify student success initiatives, analyze data and provide recommendations. "The successful implementation of interventions and infrastructure supporting student success across the District is exceptional given the time frame and the vast scope of our work (five campuses and more than 50,000 students)," Martinez-Egger said.

The first step in the ATD improvement process is for the College’s leadership to make a clear commitment to improving student outcomes, and to communicate that priority to internal and external stakeholders. As an example, Hadley begins and ends all of her internal and external speeches by reminding her audience that student success is everyone’s role at the college.

“The successful implementation of interventions and infrastructure supporting student success across the District is exceptional given the time frame and the vast scope of our work (five campuses and more than 50,000 students,”

Alma Martinez-Egger

What about TCC’s Board of Trustees? Louise Appleman, president of the board and board representative for ATD, attends most district-wide meetings. "I keep the board apprised of ATD plans and programs, and share on behalf of the Board to the ATD Committee, assuring compliance with the mission of the College and its policies," Appleman said. "My time with the ATD Committee has confirmed my suspicions -- that TCC has an A+ team of intelligent professionals who are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that TCC provides the very best experience and that our graduates are ready for the workplace or the university."

Every CELT member serves on the ATD Core Team, with some also serving on the ATD Steering Committee. The CELT supports policy changes and resource allocations to improve student success. Many initiatives were implemented rapidly, requiring many of the CELT members to move quickly to support the implementations.

In addition to executive staff support, student success initiatives are broadly supported on all five campuses and at all levels. Faculty meets regularly to discuss course and program outcomes, and also serve on the Developmental Education Councils, the District and Campus Data Teams and the District and Campus Implementation Teams. TCC works with full-time and adjunct faculty to engage all faculty perspectives relative to student success.

The ATD Executive Steering Committee, Core Team, and Data Team follow TCC’s unique district-to-campus level structure. "ATD really helped us create a framework and structure where we are better positioned to support the success of our students," Black said. The Collegewide ATD Core Team consists of a cross-functional group of key leaders from each campus who provide intervention and campus updates. Likewise, there is a District Data Team that drives the data collection and analysis for the District. The Core Team focuses on implementing and sustaining the institutional change work that impact student success while the Data Team collects and analyzes data to support the core team, encouraging the development of new strategies or the adjustment of existing ones.

Hadley also approved the addition of ATD coordinators on each campus. ATD coordinators are standing members of the data and core teams. These faculty members, appointed by campus presidents, administer ATD information and surveys on their campuses, then send the outcomes to the Data Team for published results and findings. "Results do not just sit idle on a shelf," Ramirez said. "TCC has become more intentional in teaching campuses about the importance and uses of data and surveys."

ATD assigned coaches to support all of these teams. TCC’s coaches, Christine McPhail and Rhonda Glover (since replaced by Ted Wright), educated TCC employees on ATD principles and expectations at the 2010 Annual Chancellor’s Breakfast. Martinez-Egger explained that the coaches help TCC stay on track through the data processing and systematic decision process. They also help organize data for effective interpretation so that each area can report and distribute success numbers. "What ATD does through its coaches is provide external accountability--an objective perspective," Black said.

Data, Data, Data

Data-driven evidence helps TCC to identify and monitor key student achievement gaps and barriers to student success. "We evolved our services to meet the needs of those students. ATD changed the way we are using data," Black said. ATD colleges work to increase student success as measured by key indicators. TCC gains qualitative data through the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), tools designed to help colleges gain insight on student behaviors and experiences.

The Institutional Research Planning and Effectiveness (IRPE) Department, along with district and campus leaders, is developing a new Student Engagement Survey (SES) as an alternative to the CCSSE. While CCSSE recommends the survey be conducted once every three years, TCCD has administered the CCSSE every year since 2010 to obtain sufficient baseline data. SES survey questions can be tailored to the specific services offered at TCCD and can target specific student groups. The first draft has been submitted for approval.

“There seems to be a renewed and heightened awareness of, interest in and commitment to the relevance of data,”

Louise Appleman

IRPE has grown from eight to 21 employees. In the last year, IRPE has become more deliberate in communicating data to the college community by developing data briefs focused on the success and evaluation of the interventions, hosting data discussions for the district-wide data team and supporting campus data team discussions as requested. IRPE also has created a data dashboard that allows the user to enter a data request and receive the information in seconds. IRPE hosts three data meetings per semester, where the Executive Steering Committee and Data Team receive info electronically to take back to their campuses for campus conversations, department meetings, presidential meetings and other campus dialogues.

Historically, TCC did not have a culture of sharing data broadly. Since TCC joined ATD, the college has made great strides in using evidence to improve policies. "There seems to be a renewed and heightened awareness of, interest in and commitment to the relevance of data," Appleman said.

Ready to Roll

During 2012-2013, TCC implemented several ATD interventions, which serve as tools for students to build their own paths to success. One of the first changes came in 2010 when TCC eliminated late registration as a student success measure. TCC has also increased student success through a comprehensive First-Year Experience program, as outlined in TCC’s ATD Priority 1.

The first step to this program began in spring 2013 when a New Student Orientation (NSO) program was implemented at all five campuses to connect students, prior to classes beginning, with faculty, staff and peer students, as well as introduce them to behaviors that will increase their success in college. All First Time in College (FTIC) students are required to register for NSO before registering for classes.

The second intervention under Priority 1 involved the introduction of Intentional and Appreciative Advising, which includes open-ended questions and dialogue. All students must see an academic advisor two times per semester until they complete 30 credits and all developmental education course work. Once students complete 30 college level courses, they are matched with a faculty member in their major to mentor them until they graduate. All students participating in the Men of Color Mentoring Program or Empowering Links program must meet with an advisor and mentor twice per semester and attend activities designed specifically for these populations.

To review and strengthen the Student Transitions to College Success Course (STSC) as outlined in Intervention 3, TCC brought the course to full scale in year three. STSC is a college readiness course focused on developing skills (e.g., critical thinking, time management and study skills). Designed to increase student success in subsequent courses, the course was scaled up and is now required for all FTIC students who are Texas Success Initiative (TSI)-liable in one or more areas. The purpose of TSI, mandated by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, is to grant institutions of higher education the flexibility and responsibility to improve individualized programs and ensure the success of students in higher education.

Under ATD Priority 2, TCC committed to develop and implement Retention Alert, an early alert system designed to notify students at risk. "We are currently testing Retention Alert through a pilot group of biology faculty at South and Northeast campuses," Ramirez said. "The plan is to roll out Retention Alert by fall 2014." Retention Alert will provide faculty additional support needed when a student is identified as potentially in jeopardy of failing a course or in need of additional campus resources.

To increase student success in developmental education, as outlined in Priority 2, TCC also introduced Math Emporiums in 2012-2013. Mastery-based and adaptive learning are two key elements of the math emporium curriculum implemented on all campuses. This faculty-led, computer-assisted method of instruction focuses on mastery in developmental mathematics. TCC opened Math Emporium on the South and Northwest campuses last summer. These emporiums allow students to work at their own pace, where students have the opportunity to complete more than one class during the semester or complete their classes early. Focus groups are currently being held to gather data on the success of Math Emporiums.

Leader College Status

In the past four years, TCC has made tremendous strides in developing programs and policies that have transformed the institution and increased student success. These efforts were rewarded in April of 2013 when TCC was recognized as a finalist for the American Association of Community College Excellence Award in Student Success and in July of 2013 when TCC was named an Achieving the Dream Leader College. Becoming a leader college in just three years represents an unbelievable effort on the part of TCC’s entire college community. "We pulled together our strategies as five colleges working as one," Martinez-Egger said. "We worked hard, we worked fast and we stuck to our plan." Martinez-Egger said she along with many cheered in their offices while reading the District-wide email informing employees that TCC had achieved Leader College status.

“Other colleges are looking at us now—as a role model—looking to see what makes us successful that they can implement on their own campuses,”

Alma Martinez-Egger

Institutions seeking Leader College status are held to a higher standard and must prove that student achievement increased on at least one measure for three or more years. TCC has truly become an institution that uses data to inform our decision making and one that uses broad engagement to gain support for making lasting changes. "Becoming a Leader College was an ‘assumed’ goal from the beginning so we were extremely pleased (and proud!) to be named a leader after only three years," Appleman continued, "Our ATD Coaches and the TCC faculty and staff were in concert from the beginning, which paid off and will continue to sustain our continued improvement and progress." Becoming a Leader College underscores the extensive changes TCC has made and the resulting increases in the success of its students. Every college invited to join ATD is entitled to receive coaching, data facilitation and other support to help implement the ATD evidence-driven process for increasing student success. ATD Leader Colleges are institutions that have implemented this institutional improvement process and met high standards of practice and performance. To apply for Leader College status, TCC was required to submit yearly reports that exceeded ATD standards.

Achieving Leader College status allows TCC to proudly display the ATD Leader College logo, recognizing TCC as an expert and leader in the field. It also provides access to more funding and pairs TCC with a non-leader college to guide. TCC was paired with Houston Community College before becoming a leader college itself. Today, TCC is a model to help other institutions streamline their processes. "Other colleges are looking at us now—as a role model—looking to see what makes us successful that they can implement on their own campuses," Martinez-Egger said.

Moving Forward

"Anyone looking at TCC today will see a very different institution than just four years ago, thanks, in part, to our work with ATD," said Kim Beatty, associate vice chancellor for student success.

Creating pathways for student success and developing the supporting programs and services has become the number one priority at TCC. This shift is evident throughout TCC’s campuses, publications and, most importantly, in how the institution interacts with students. "ATD will continue to be a vehicle for change," Black said. "It hasn’t made the change for us, we as an institution have made the change through our efforts, but we made it because ATD forced us to look at ourselves and think differently."

Ramirez explained that TCC’s goal for the future is to align efforts from an institutional standpoint so there is more connected support and a streamline of measures and efforts. "We must also focus on reapplying for Leader College status, providing data to show progressive increase in two of our measures over these three years." Ramirez said.

Continuing these efforts requires a commitment to ongoing program development and process improvement. "TCC will never stop looking at data to evaluate strategies and make necessary improvements," Martinez-Egger said. "It is a constant cycle of making informed decisions--one that never ends—because we make needed improvements and then move on to the next area of improvement." As strategies prove successful and are brought to scale, TCC will continue to repeat the process, identifying new areas to address.