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Changes in institutional culture helps community discuss race, poverty

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Photo: Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas

​DALLAS — When Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas (PCCUA) decided to revise its developmental education curriculum and college-wide professional development, college officials first took a close look at the students they serve.

According to U.S. Census data, three of the five counties that PCCUA serves are among the 100 poorest in the nation, and nearly half of its students were black, with the other half white. The Achieving the Dream college used that information to change its approach to teaching students.

On Tuesday night, PCCUA received special recognition in the Leah Meyer Austin Institutional Student Success Leadership Award competition for changing its institutional culture to focus on student success through learning, rather than enrollment. The Achieving the Dream Leader College was also praised for its use of common readers—non-fiction and fiction books—to address racism and poverty.

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“Early in our Achieving the Dream work, we came to understand that most of our faculty and staff did not understand our students. Most of our students are the product of generational poverty; most of our faculty and staff are not,” PCCUA Chancellor Steven Murray wrote in the college's award application.

To address this disconnection, PCCUA gave all employees a copy of the non-fiction book Bridges Out of Poverty, and convened large and small group meetings for a year to discuss it.

“We came to see that many of the issues that we had regarded as student issues were also organizational issues and that we could change how we responded to them,” Murray said.

The evidence-informed strategies the college used to address its organizational issues include:

  • redesigning the developmental education curricula: implementing supplemental learning labs
  • adding 30 contact hours in each developmental education course
  • creating an additional developmental reading level
  • providing professional development to engage faculty more substantially in improving student learning outcomes

PCCUA continues to facilitate conversations on race and poverty in the non-threatening environmental it strives to create on its three campuses. It has found that using novels makes it easier for students, employees and community residents to discuss race and poverty. The college is also testing a curriculum that the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service developed for small group, dialogue-to-action conversations around the issue of race.

Through its participation in Achieving the Dream, PCCUA also added intrusive advising through its early alert program and expanded student support services to meet the needs of the nearly 90 percent of incoming students who are placed into at least one developmental education course.

The college has seen positive results since it changed both the content and delivery of developmental reading, writing and math in fall 2007:

  • 66 percent of students have successfully completed developmental education courses compared to 55 percent in the 2004-2006 cohorts.
  • 74 percent of students have persisted term-to-term compared to 67 percent among the same cohorts.
  • 42 percent of students have persisted fall-to-fall compared to 33 percent among the same groups.
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