ATD Hosts Virtual Town Hall to Bring Community College Community Together

On Monday, April 20, Achieving the Dream gave leaders, funders, and other community college professionals the opportunity to gather as a community to discuss how best to support students during the COVID-19 crisis. The ATD Virtual Town Hall brought together nearly 500 people from around the world to ask questions and share solutions for supporting students during this unprecedented time.

In framing the conversation, ATD President and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout recalled a poem, Janet Kalven’s Respectable Outlaw:
You have set sail on another ocean
without star or compass
going where the argument leads
Shattering the certainties of centuries.

While the pandemic has indeed set us on another ocean, Dr. Stout said, we are not without star or compass, noting that our students and our community offer us direction. She reflected on this year’s DREAM 2020, where she spoke to the primary strength of community colleges—one we must leverage now more than ever—our localness.

“While COVID-19 is attacking our communities, it is not attacking what we do best as community colleges,” Dr. Stout said, adding she has been inspired by the colleges pivoting quickly to respond to the crisis by donations of PPE, 3-D printing and manufacturing of safety tools, turning campuses into testing sites, and more.

Journalist and author James Fallows’ plenary remarks at ATD’s convening DREAM 2020 also ring even more true during COVID-19, she added, where he said: “Community colleges are America’s institutions of the moment.”

That localness, innovation, and commitment to work hard to find solutions is at the center of our current response—and will be at the heart of our recovery as a sector, she said.

“We are all challenged now—whether we want to or not—to anticipate and plan for change rather than hope change will not arrive. We can anticipate and plan by cataloguing the lessons we are learning,” Dr. Stout said.

Deliberate in calling these lessons we are learning, in this constantly changing crisis, Dr. Stout summarized 10 key findings from the many conversations she has had with community college presidents and leaders over the past few weeks:

  1. Our communities are more vulnerable than we imagined. Our students, our learners, are even more vulnerable than we even imagined, even more than the data are telling us. Understanding their stories and their intersectionality—not just as a data point—is really essential. With classroom walls having been shattered, faculty have been fully exposed to the student experience in new ways.
  2. Faculty resiliency and innovation abounds. And raises the question: how can we sustain and support faculty in ways consistent with Achieving the Dream’s recent call to move support for teaching and learning into the heart of our student success work, so that we can continue to build on this faculty innovation during recovery?
  3. Colleges with strong fundamentals are accelerating their student success work right now. They’re scaling the modularization of the traditional semester. Many of our ATD colleges have started to offer eight-week sessions. We’re eliminating placement testing and moving to multiple measures or self-guided measures. We’re launching new ways to onboard students that once required multiple visits to our campuses. We’re adopting new grading systems that ensure rigor, but offer new flexibility. We’re moving rapidly to digitize processes.
  4. Colleges with a strategic intention around distance learning pre-COVID were able to transition faster and smoother. Support for faculty was in place and centers for teaching and learning were already in place. Tools and expectations for the use of learning management systems were set, and at some of our colleges, students were already required to take an online course.
  5. Colleges are eager to sustain these changes. We can use the lessons we’re learning to improve the student experience. One president I spoke to is asking her team to intentionally reflect and journal on what they did pre-COVID, what they’re doing during COVID, and what they want to ensure remains post-COVID.
  6. Universal remote services. There’s a real opportunity here for improved transformation, to replace some of the set hours that we’ve always used, with 24/7 tutoring access, and other student supports, including financial aid.
  7. We’re discovering new continuity metrics. We’re able to track whether students have moved from face to face classes into the online moving environment, whether they’re engaging, all important to understand in this critical semester.
  8. We’re learning limitations of our shadow systems. Non-credit to credit organizational structures and systems that connect non-credit and credit are really important. Many of our colleges have struggled with building the same support non-credit programs into distance learning formats.
  9. Financial aid must transform to systems of support. We need to transition from financial aid siloed offices to financial services systems of support that connect our financial aid offices with our foundations, that connect our colleges with the community, and offer a broad set of opportunities for student support.
  10. Inequities are exacerbated in COVID-19. The crisis has amplified economic and racial inequities and only makes the what our community colleges have been working on as a sector more crucial than ever: improve student success results, at scale, with equity.

Closing the Town Hall, Dr. Stout said COVID-19 challenges us to imagine a bolder vision for student success.

“That bolder call to action was one that makes completion a progression metric rather than end goal, one that embodies a new access agenda that reaches deeper into our communities to open new pathways into and through our colleges for our most vulnerable learners, one that moves from a focus on whole college transformation to whole community transformation, one that moves teaching and learning and faculty leadership engagement and respect from the margins to the center of our redesign efforts, and most importantly, one that authentically centers equity, especially racial equity, in our institutional redesign work,” she said.

A recording of the Town Hall can be found HERE.

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