There has been a lot of discussion in recent months at the national and local levels about the so-called “completion agenda” and, to a somewhat lesser extent, about closing achievement gaps for underrepresented students. My experience working with Metro Health Academy at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) has led me to some observations about how City College, and colleges more generally, can more effectively address the goals of increased completion and decreased achievement gaps.
Meto Health Academy’s mission — “to increase equity in college completion through engaging, supportive, rigorous, and socially relevant education”– speaks directly to the completion agenda. And, as their website says, the program supports diverse students in:
- Completing general education requirements with a small cohort of students who are interested in real world issues.
- Preparing in an engaged learning environment to write effectively, speak powerfully, and think critically.
- Building a solid foundation for meaningful work in public health, social services (from social work to mental health to the non-profit sector), the health care professions, or community organizing.
- Helping our communities move toward health and social justice.
In Spring 2013, I taught two sections of college level statistics — one section predominantly Metro students and one general population section. Materials, assignments, classroom activities, and evaluation for the two classes were essentially identical. A comparison of Metro students to general population students suggests that Metro is doing something that helps students succeed when they otherwise might not.
Although it’s not a random, controlled experiment, a few numbers are still useful to consider. In the Metro college-level statistics course:
35 Metro students began the course.
- Two Metro stopped attending by the end of the semester (5.7%).
- Nine Metro students stayed in class to the end, but didn’t pass (25.7%).
20 non-Metro students began the course.
- Four non-Metro students stopped attending by the end of the semester (20.0%).
- Four non-Metro students stayed in class to the end, but didn’t pass (20.0%).
By comparison, in the general population college-level statistics course:
42 students began the course
- Six student stopped attending by the end of the semester (14.3%)
- Seven students stayed in the class to the end, but didn’t pass (17.7%).
- Of 35 Metro students, 24 passed (68.6%)
- Of 62 general population students in both sections, 36 passed (58.1%).
The evidence is not overwhelming, but the higher persistence and overall pass rates for Metro students are suggestive. And numbers aside, I often say that during an 18-week semester, something kind of bad is going to happen to pretty much everyone. These classes were no exception. There were deaths in students’ families, serious illnesses, and other personal crises that interfered with students’ abilities to focus on their schoolwork. Yet, from my observation, Metro students were more resilient and more likely to seek out help when they struggled, either from me or from other resources. Even in the face of poor grades on tests or other work, Metro students were more likely to persist, whereas non-Metro students were more likely to disappear.
Consider also that Metro Health Academy students are disproportionately (compared to the general student population at CCSF) first-generation-in-college, underrepresented students. Thus, the program appears to close and even reverse achievement gaps that we usually see.
Comparing the support I see Metro students and faculty receiving compared to outside the program suggests some reasons for these improvements:
- Attention to and support for students’ affective issues beyond the instructor
- A community of teachers and learners that know each other and work together
- Tutoring resources dedicated to the course
- A directed, focused program of courses that link together and provide a clear pathway for students to transfer to a four-year school
- Support for the instructors in the program from Metro staff in the form of both meaningful professional development and problem solving on the individual student level
If we’re really serious about making sure our students succeed, I think these are the kinds of qualities and interventions we need. Moreover, these are some of the qualities you see in elite private schools where failing students is basically not an option. And while the per-student cost for Metro students is a little higher than for general population students, we owe it to students to provide the extra support they need to succeed. After all, it’s not our job to act as gate keepers to degrees and certificates; it’s our job to do everything we can to help students achieve their educational goals.