Keeping students on course over the summer

Photo: Hennepin Technical College

Federal data indicate that Minnesota in 2014 ranked last in four-year graduation rates for Latino and American Indian students, second to last for African-American students and near the bottom for low-income students.

To help address this challenge in the state, Hennepin Technical College’s federally funded TRIO program — which I oversee at the college — serves 500 students in area high schools. Many of these students balance significant work and family obligations outside of school, and periods of homelessness are a reality for some.

TRIO programs are federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals who are low-income and/or first generation with the potential to succeed in college. They offer academic advising and career exploration services, leadership activities and financial aid advising.

Enter the Hennepin Tech’s TRIO Summer Enrichment Program. Its goal is to help students build core academic skills to better prepare them for their next academic year curriculum, for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) standard tests and for college – with the help of proven diagnostic assessment and digital learning technology.

The program also provides opportunities for students to practice building relationships with peers, teachers, counselors and others. In addition, it offers field trips that provide experiential learning and college exploration opportunities that help students visualize and begin planning for postsecondary options.

Assessing and explaining

Students in the TRIO program often fall behind in credits, struggle to finish high school and may not envision themselves attending a postsecondary institution. Since many students tend to forget subject matter during the summer, we designed a six-week summer enrichment program to bolster students’ academic progression and offer a continuity of career prep and advising during the summer break.

Licensed teachers and advisers guide students through the combined online and face-to-face course format, which is supplemented by course materials that include College Board’s ACCUPLACER assessment program and Pearson’s self-paced MyLab Foundational Skills online homework, tutorial and assessment technology. The summer enrichment program is conducted in three computer labs at Hennepin Tech, giving students access to state-of-the-art facilities and exposure to a college campus.

Participating students and their families are counseled about the value of the summer enrichment program. We explain what the diagnostic scores mean. We tell students that achieving a certain score entitles them to “test out” of a given class, and we make the financial savings explicit, too. If students score high enough on the diagnostic exam to be college ready, they can avoid taking several remedial courses, saving up to $900. As a result, students readily grasp the meaning of the savings — both time and money — and are motivated to work hard.

A personalized ‘Learning Path’

Students begin their summer coursework by taking the diagnostic pre-test, which is different from the ACCUPLACER exam used by colleges for placement. The diagnostic breaks down each subject area into discrete skills and delivers a precise score for each. Students who score proficient (12–15) won’t have any exercises on that skill in their personalized “Learning Path.”

High school students really love the personalized Learning Path that is integrated with the course materials because they hate having to work through material they’ve already mastered. Our summer program brings together different ages and vastly different skill levels. The personalized Learning Path means that each student works just on their skill deficits. Therefore, the gains from pre- to post-test represent genuine remediation and strengthening of essential academic skills.

The six-week summer program runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, with opportunities to stay and engage with tutors each afternoon after the regular sessions. Students transition, in grade-level groups, among English, math and writing sessions.

Fridays are organized around career exploration with guest presentations, hands-on demonstrations and field trip excursions. Career areas the program has explored include graphic design, fluid power/hydraulics, architectural design, culinary arts, welding, 3D printing and electronics. Students also participate in one out-of-state college exploration trip each summer, visiting colleges in nearby states.

The program includes daily round-trip transportation for the students, plus breakfast and lunch.

Gains in reading, writing and math

After six weeks of our hybrid structure with students working independently through the course materials and teachers leading small group lessons, students take a post-test diagnostic test in each subject. Students made consistent, incremental learning gains in all skill areas.

Based on documentation of five years of program data from 2013 through the 2017 school year, we can report that the program has helped students to make skills gains in reading, writing and math as measured by diagnostic pre- and post-tests. To date, 93 percent of eligible Summer Enrichment Program participants are currently enrolled in college. Four students were named finalists for Act Six and two students won full-tuition, full-need, four-year scholarships from Act Six.

With these results, it’s not surprising that 96 percent of students surveyed responded that they were very satisfied or extremely satisfied with the program.

Great teachers, too

Overall, we are achieving our program goals. Instead of losing academic skills during the summer break, our students are strengthening core academic skills that will enable them to succeed in their next academic year curriculum, to graduate high school on time and to demonstrate readiness for college.

Integrating the diagnostic tests and self-paced digital learning technology with the course provides critical personalized learning and support we need for our mixed-age, mixed-skills student participants. We look forward to tracking outcomes as more of participating students graduate and move confidently toward their postsecondary college and career aspirations.

We also have observed that relationships and student engagement are powerful drivers for student achievement. Having great teachers who return every year is essential to our success, and we’ve secured funding for another five years based on the consistent results our students have achieved. We hope to establish ongoing funding that enables us to extend program participation to more students.

About the Author

Lisa Roney
is director of educational talent search at Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota. She is a licensed high school counselor and teacher who has dedicated her 25-year career to serving low-income and first-generation students in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.