Seeking to boost student success in Appalachia

Galen DeHay (center), president of South Carolina's Tri-County Technical College, chats with students. (Photo: TCTC)

As part of its mission to improve outcomes for rural students in its region, Community Colleges of Appalachia (CCA) has developed a Rural Educators Academy that provides a structured learning experience with insights for college leaders, educators and staff that can help transform campus cultures and boost student outcomes.

“I would have loved to have this opportunity, to have a team from my college participate in something like this, particularly as it involved faculty,” says Kevin Boys, longtime president of Southern State Community College (Ohio), who in 2022 became executive director of CCA, which is an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

He provided his testimony as part of the team that wrote the proposal to provide professional development geared toward better understanding students and promoting their success.

“The concept was to involve staff, faculty and leadership at the college to come together to better understand the students we serve and provide an environment where students across Appalachia could succeed,” he says.

Editor’s note: This article continues a series that examines some of the topics and sessions that will be featured at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual convention, which will be held April 5-9 in Louisville, Kentucky. Registration closes March 22 at 5 p.m. ET.

Of the 95 member colleges of CCA, six participated in the initial cohort and five more were added to the current group. With funding and thought leadership from the nonprofit Ascendium Education Group, and Launch for Student Success providing the face-to-face sessions that modeled instructional practices, the first cohort made its way through a series of online modules that culminated in a capstone project, says Boys, who will participate in a panel with two leaders of participating colleges during AACC 2024.

Filling a gap

Galen DeHay, president of Tri-County Technical College (South Carolina), was also one of the grant writers for the project, which came about in the middle of the pandemic. Noting that CCA has focused historically on providing various development opportunities to its member colleges, he says, that while Appalachia runs from New York to Mississippi, and “each region is different, what we started to see during the pandemic is that it uncovered a number of inequities that everybody knew existed [more broadly], exposed in rural America.”

The CCA team realized that while there had been plenty of research into urban inequities, and understandably so given the high populations and concentration of issues, there wasn’t much out there for rural students and educational communities, including professional development for faculty and staff to learn strategies for improving rural student access, says DeHay, who will participate on the AACC 2024 panel along with Boys and Gina Mounfield, vice president of academic affairs at Florence-Darlington Technical College (South Carolina).

There also were very few opportunities for leaders to learn how they could create systemic changes to support this work, DeHay says.

“There are some groups that offer teaching and learning, and some that offer leadership development, but nobody that did it all. And that was how the Rural Educator Academy got formed — how to enact changes at the organizational level, and through teaching and learning, to improve outcomes,” he says.

With those goals in mind, the cohort participants have included both leaders and individual faculty and staff members, between five and nine from each college, DeHay says. Each successive cohort will expand somewhat, although the aim is to keep them small to provide intimate, structured learning for teams, he says.

The sequence and purpose

Participants start by diving into local and regional data, which they have leveraged to devise the action-research capstone project that they could carry out at their respective institutions to improve student outcomes. Each group has done a kickoff in the summer and its first module in early fall, in person at the CCA headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina, after which they virtually delve into a series of modules both synchronously and asynchronously, with synchronous virtual debriefing sessions to talk about their progress, DeHay says.

In the fall, they “learn together about things like growth mindset vs. fixed mindset, explore the communities they are looking to better serve, and understand the challenges and opportunities, and who might be partners in the work with them,” he says, noting that the spring semester is focused on the design, development and implementation of their capstone projects.

The nature of those projects varies based on where each institution is on its learning curve, DeHay says.

“Our capstone project focused on institutional culture, providing increased access to learning support services,” he says. “All of them end up focusing on the access measures as well as immediate measures of student success. A number of things that are long game — graduation rates, workforce pipelines in local communities — when looking at that, you’re looking at multiyear measures. We’ve been very realistic and how we’re assessing this.”

Related article: Advancing colleges in Appalachia

Instead, the projects focus on nearer-term outcome measures, DeHay says. “Are we getting more individuals who are rural, who are post-traditional, adult learners, who made a decision as a result of the work we have done?” he says. “They understand that college is an option, and that our college is the place they can access their education. And then once they’re there, the purpose of having faculty and staff working together is that they’re the ones providing direct support and learning, implementing and building on new teaching/learning techniques, support structures and helping students persist toward graduation.”

The Rural Educators Academy (REA) has had several challenges, including one college that faced disasters on its campus, which interfered with its ability to keep up, although the school’s faculty did complete the capstone, Boys says.

“You hear the expression, ‘Life happens,’” he says. “We use that expression when talking about students. Life also happens to leaders. … One of the lessons is, we can make our plans, but as the pandemic so capably demonstrated, we have to be flexible in how we approach any kind of professional development opportunity.”

Moving the needle

During the second cohort in the current school year, the academy both expanded the number of participants and made adjustments to curriculum based on the feedback from the earlier cohort, Boys says. It has hired a researcher to conduct an evaluation of the program, with the goal of continuing and improving the academy, he says.

“Nobody enters something like this with the idea that it will be a one- or two-shot deal,” Boys says. “Our vision is to be able to sustain REA. One of my thoughts, now that some of these teams have gone through it themselves, is we have this internal group of facilitators to work with colleges in close proximity with them, to continue the REA in maybe a more expansive way.”

DeHay believes that the lessons learned from the academy will apply not just in Appalachia but throughout rural America.

“One is that these regions are certainly lower-income regions,” he says. “That’s driven by a number of things — less economic opportunity and a history of displaced workers that’s intergenerational,” ranging from areas that were dependent on the textiles industry, to former coal-mining areas. “That’s led lower educational attainment rates in these regions.”

As a result, people in these areas tend to have a “fixed mindset” about life, DeHay says.

He explains: “That all of these things are permanent, and my life circumstances keep me from moving forward, versus helping them understand that you do have agency, you do have control, you can change that mindset, and believe you have talents and abilities that can be developed — and what role community colleges can play in doing that.

Related article: DataPoints: Associate attainment in Appalachia

The other big theme is funding, with rural areas often overshadowed by urban areas when it comes to investment in communities and in economic development, DeHay argues.

At a practical level, DeHay says, CCA and the academy have showcased how colleges can build bridges to community members who have that “fixed mindset” and beckon prospective students to campus.

“We’ve learned that you can’t just walk into a community where trust has not been built yet,” he says. “You’re seeing that with all the cohorts — building trust in the community. Resources have not been placed into these communities in such a long time, if you build trust, you can get all kinds of great outcomes.”

To do so, he adds, “We’re taking a multistate, regional approach, leveraging something like the Community Colleges of Appalachia, where you’ve got convenings of large numbers of colleges with shared problems, which has taught us the power of partnerships. Narrowing our focus, and leveraging national funding partners, we’ve seen a lot of promise in moving that needle.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.
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