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State of Emergency - Part Two

Published 6/29/2011 10:28:12 AM

Advancing Educational Models for the 21st Century

by Adrian L. Ford
Will these policies have a measurable impact on reducing the academic achievement gap that separates white students from black and Latino students? Will these education reforms increase the high school graduation rates of low-income and students of color, and increase their entrance into post-secondary educational institutions?

President Obama's theme of "Winning the Future" has an emphasis on education as a path to a more economically secure future for Americans. The president's Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion competitive grant program for states that adopt the president's education reform agenda. Will these policies have a measurable  impact on reducing the academic achievement gap that separates white students from black and Latino students? Will these education reforms increase the high school graduation rates of low-income and students of color, and increase their entrance into post-secondary educational institutions? As for the 11 states who have won Race to the Top grants for opening up their states to more charter schools, and agreeing to make test scores a component of teacher evaluations and salaries: the jury is still out.

Massachusetts has received a $250 million Race to the Top grant, and Governor Patrick, like President Obama, is looking to community colleges to increase their roles in addressing the nation's education, economic and workforce development needs. Community colleges have a long history of innovative partnerships with middle and high schools that are increasing high school graduation rates, and are ensuring that all students have an opportunity to be college and career ready.

Mount Wachusett Community College is "the only community college in the state with a division dedicated to the K-12 and out-of -school youth pipeline."

Mount Wachusett Community College, under the visionary leadership of its president, Dr. Daniel M. Asquino, has been providing innovative educational models to students throughout North Central Massachusetts for the past 25 years. Kristin Sweeney Moore, assistant dean of the Fitchburg Educational Partnership, says the college is unique in the Commonwealth in many ways. According to Ms. Moore, Mount Wachusett Community College is "the only community college in the state with a division dedicated to the K-12 and out-of -school youth pipeline." She also said that the Division of Access and Transition at the college has 22 programs, including TRIO and GEAR UP, that serve over 3,500 students in the region.

Mount Wachusett Community College, under the visionary leadership of its president, Dr. Daniel M. Asquino, has been providing innovative educational models to students throughout North Central Massachusetts for the past 25 years.

Recently I had an opportunity to meet with Ms. Moore and some of her staff including Sharmese Gunn and Victor Rojas at the Arthur M. Longsjo Jr. Middle School where they partner with other school personnel to provide a cadre of services to a diverse student population. Sharmese Gunn, academic counselor for the college's TRIO Educational Talent Search program and Project Excel, works with students in grades 6-8 preparing them to transition into high school. Her students are involved in cultural activities, college and career workshops, as well as scholarship funding opportunities. Ms. Gunn said her activities with the students are "preparing them to have a better understanding of college life." When asked about the role of the parents of her students, she said that when any student applies for enrollment into her program, that she tells them, "You will not get into the program, unless I meet with your parents." She also said that part of her work is to build relationships with parents and to help them navigate the school system. As a result, she said that more parents are participating in school open house activities; meeting with teachers; and are involved in academic as well as school functions. According to Ms. Gunn, "parents are now asking to volunteer, and are calling me on a regular basis, offering help."

...the combination of strong parental involvement, academic support, financial aid, and students researching and visiting colleges, has contributed to the success of the GEAR UP program.

Victor Rojas is the assistant director of GEAR UP, one of the colleges flagship programs working with students in middle school through high school graduation, and into post-secondary education. As a result of a multiyear collaborative federal grant received by the college in 1999, with its original partners (Cleghorn Neighborhood Center, the Fitchburg School District and Three Pyramids, Inc.) GEAR UP began working with its first cohort of students projected to graduate in 2005. According to Mr. Rojas GEAR UP has been so successful that it was funded a second time with students preparing to graduate in 2011 and 2012; and also approved for a third round of funding for students projected to graduate in 2016 and 2017. Mr. Rojas also said that the combination of strong parental involvement, academic support, financial aid, and students researching and visiting colleges, has contributed to the success of the GEAR UP program. Echoing Ms. Gunn's views regarding the important role of parents, Mr. Rojas said that "communication has been key to developing real relationships with parents who are an integral part of GEAR UP, which is currently working with 1,600 students in the middle and high schools in Fitchburg." Using GEAR UP over the years to document evidence and performance based practices, Ms. Moore said they are now able to apply what they have learned to "professional development, and look at common instructional frameworks to be applied across the school district that can result in systems change."

Another unique, and first of its kind in the state, is the Pathways Early College Innovation School, which is also administered by the Division of Access and Transition at Mount Wachusett Community College. The school within the college is a partnership between the college and the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District in Orange, Mass. Garo Papazian, the school's director, who is also affectionately known by many students and adults alike as Mr. P, said the primary goal of the new Pathways school "is to provide 20 motivated high school juniors each year, the opportunity to earn their high school diploma and an associate degree while completing their junior and senior year at MWCC." He also said that another important goal of the school is to increase high school graduation rates, and the enrollment and retention of diverse students in post-secondary education. Mr. P, who has also worked as an administrator at Fitchburg High School, said when working with students having discipline problems, it is important to be honest with all students who often need different levels of support. And when students of color would end up in his office, he said he would be honest with them as well. He said he would convey to them that they had to work three times as hard just to break even, and "if you're not willing to do that you're not going to be even with everyone else. And you have to work four times as hard to surpass others" he would tell them.

"Garo you're too stupid to go to college, you're not smart enough for a trade school, and I'm really sorry the Vietnam War has ended, because we'd send you to Vietnam." He said he left that office in tears, and that a lot of what he does is to make sure that other young people don't suffer the consequences that he and others have suffered.

Today, Mr. P is viewed by students, parents and others in the community as a dedicated and committed educator because he has experienced and overcome many of the challenges that especially low-income and students of color will face. Among his various degrees from prestigious colleges and universities, Mr. P is also certified to be a vice principal and principal in the state of Massachusetts pre-K and K-12. However, when he graduated from high school, according to Mr. P, his guidance counselor said "Garo you're too stupid to go to college, you're not smart enough for a trade school, and I'm really sorry the Vietnam War has ended, because we'd send you to Vietnam." He said he left that office in tears, and that a lot of what he does is to make sure that other young people don't suffer the consequences that he and others have suffered. He also said that as an educator "you're preparing and opening the eyes of young people to the possibilities of what their future can be." Now that's winning the future!

She said that when a student is having difficulty and seeks her help in meeting a particular challenge, that she uses "tough love" in telling them what they need to be doing to get back on track

Kathy Lewis is a bi-lingual education specialist for MWCC's TRIO Educational Opportunity Center at the college's Leominster campus. Initially Ms. Lewis was brought to the center to recruit Latinos, but she said she now counsels "a broad range of diverse students," including; blacks, Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners. Ms. Lewis also connects students to ESL and GED services, financial aid, as well as career counseling. She said her job description is something she enjoys, and sees as her mission in life "to do all I can to increase representation and the success of people of color." Ms. Lewis said she has worked in the community since 1975, and she is well known, which has helped her in reaching and bringing into the Leominster campus many historically disadvantage groups. She said that she is an example of the college using cultural, language and racial diversity to attract, and to successfully enroll diverse students. When I asked her about student sustainability, she said about 40-50 percent of students drop out for a range of reasons, including family and economic challenges.

"it's important for students of color to understand their history, and the sacrifices made by their forbearers."

With regard to sustainability challenges, Ms. Lewis believes that wrap-around social services such as child care, transportation, and even part-time work is important in keeping her students in college. She also said that she advises students on the importance of balancing their educational, family and social life, especially young people who may find it difficult to adapt to the responsibilities of succeeding in an educational environment. She said that when a student is having difficulty and seeks her help in meeting a particular challenge, that she uses "tough love" in telling them what they need to be doing to get back on track , while constantly praising them when they're performing successfully. Ms. Lewis also believes that "it's important for students of color to understand their history, and the sacrifices made by their forbearers." She said it is their duty to "pay back for the sacrifices by working hard and putting in the effort necessary to succeed," and that it is unacceptable for them to waste away their time and fail. And she too believes that people of color must work twice as hard to succeed, but in doing so, she believes that we will also be better prepared. "Education is power," she said, "and without it, you won't succeed."

The fact is that the nation's recent recession has left millions of Americans under tremendous stress, and economic insecurity.

I recently talked to Dr. Vincent M. Bates, dean of Liberal Arts, Math, Education and Developmental Studies at the college, about a seemingly contradictory message many Americans are receiving pertaining to the ability of America being globally competitive in the 21st Century; and the necessity of completing four years of post-secondary education. I explained to Dr. Bates that I felt that the inherent underlying challenge of the message is a presumption that education can act independently of the racial, social and economic inequalities that many Americans face today. The fact is that the nation's recent recession has left millions of Americans under tremendous stress, and economic insecurity. I asked Dr. Bates about his ideas on how Americans might equip themselves educationally for future global competiveness, and the reality of our surviving the current economic environment. How do we plan for the future, while we're surviving the present?

At community colleges, we want our students to achieve an associate's degree, but another major goal of community colleges is to offer the students what they need, when they need it, and give them the skills that they need,"

Dr. Bates responded by addressing the roles of post-secondary educational institutions, and some competing messages within. He commented that the goal of the nation's four-year institutions is the awarding of a four-year degree. "Their goal is to keep the student there for four years until they get their degree. At community colleges, we want our students to achieve an associate's degree, but another major goal of community colleges is to offer the students what they need, when they need it, and give them the skills that they need," he said. According to Dr. Bates, many students come to the community college to take four or five classes in the hope of boosting their marketability in the job field.

"an increasing amount of students come to the college for professional growth and to gain a specific skills set they will need to be marketable in the workforce.

He stated: "We can provide the necessary skills they need, and when they leave us we don't see it as a failure, we see it as a success because we have fulfilled their needs." Additionally, he commented that a large part of a community college student's primary goal is to obtain an associate's degree, and transfer to a four-year institution. However, according to Dr. Bates, "an increasing amount of students come to the college for professional growth and to gain a specific skills set they will need to be marketable in the workforce. Those skills may ultimately manifest themselves into a degree. But when they leave us without an associate's degree, it is counted as a failure by the government." It is Dr. Bates' belief that this should not be looked upon as a failure. "We did not fail them; we provided them with what they needed." He went on to say that the same government agencies that look upon students at a community college who did not receive a degree as a failure, are currently marketing community colleges as the as best place to go if you need to retool or relearn your skills. Dr. Bates said that "while all post-secondary institutions are evaluated the same, all do not have the same mission."

...the report concluded that only 1/3 of jobs created in the future are expected to require a bachelor's degree or higher. And approximately the same amount, about 1/3, will require just an associate degree or an occupational credential.

I asked Dr. Bates about his thoughts regarding a recent report released by the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. The authors of the report basically said that America needs to strike a balance regarding our major focus of completing four years of college. Their comments in the report concluded that only 1/3 of jobs created in the future are expected to require a bachelor's degree or higher. And approximately the same amount, about 1/3, will require just an associate degree or an occupational credential. They also state that only 30 percent of young adults in the U.S. successfully complete a bachelor's degree. They promote embracing multiple approaches to help youth make the transition into adulthood including work-based learning, career and occupational and technology-based education. They also say we can balance our focus by students obtaining an associate degree or even the completion of certificate programs. The authors of the report believe that their approach is based on the reality of how many people actually complete four years of post -secondary education, and the skills, economic, and workforce needs of Americans. Dr. Bates said that he agreed with the recommendations in the report because they offered real options for people to consider who have different educational needs and abilities. He stated that one way community colleges can adapt to community needs is by offering targeted certificate programs. "

"having an education does not guarantee that you're going to be successful. But an education is a wonderful thing to have. It proves that you can stick to a task and achieve a goal. And that is a great advantage, when someone is looking to be employed."

For example in the health or medical field, a certificate can provide people with a specific skills set that allows them to be certified doing a portion of a job; allowing them to work in a specific medical field, while they continue to pursue their ultimate occupational goal. These options provide unique opportunities for people to enter the workforce." Dr. Bates also said that that he was a proponent of "everyone should have the opportunity to go to college and receive a degree, but everyone does not necessarily have to achieve a degree to be successful." He also commented that many people who are successful in the world don't have a degree, but they have a skill, and if you have a marketable skill and a talent, you can use that to be successful. Dr. Bates concluded by saying that "having an education does not guarantee that you're going to be successful. But an education is a wonderful thing to have. It proves that you can stick to a task and achieve a goal. And that is a great advantage, when someone is looking to be employed."

MWCC's TRIO Student Support Services Visions program helps first generation college students, students with low incomes and students with disabilities. "Minority students at the Mount are able to get a great and unique education with some of the best professors in their respective fields, who prepare them for a four-year school or the job they are seeking,"

Edwin Martinez, who graduated from Mount Wachusett Community College in 2010 with an associate degree in business administration, exemplifies what Dr. Bates was referring to regarding one's ability to work hard and achieve their educational goals. Mr. Martinez told me that he arrived in Gardner nine years ago, coming from El Salvador in Central America speaking very little English. He graduated from Gardner High School in 2008. After taking additional courses this past academic year at MWCC, he will transfer in September to Salem State University, where he will complete his bachelor's degree in finance. As an honor student, he has served on every major club at the college, including president and vice president of the Student Government Association, as well as a Student Trustee on the Board of Trustees. He also served on five major committees and volunteered at various community projects. When I congratulated Mr. Martinez on his accomplishments and his overcoming the many challenges he faced, he said it was difficult at times but very rewarding. He also said, "I think that the Mount is a great place to start for minority students because the Mount has one of the best financial aid programs."

He is also an example of how we can prepare for the future, while surviving the present.

In addition, MWCC's TRIO Student Support Services Visions program helps first generation college students, students with low incomes and students with disabilities. "Minority students at the Mount are able to get a great and unique education with some of the best professors in their respective fields, who prepare them for a four-year school or the job they are seeking," Mr. Martinez said. "Thanks to the Mount, I'll have my associate degree and I'll soon be transferring to Salem State University with no debt, which is great because that will make it much easier to start my bachelor's degree at Salem." Mr. Martinez pretty much said it all, because his words are backed by the necessary actions required to achieve one's goals. He is also an example of how we can prepare for the future, while surviving the present. Education truly is a wonderful thing.