From Struggling to Serve Students in Poverty to Becoming a National Award Winner

Achieving the Dream’s Leah Meyer Austin Award is the highest honor a college in the ATD Network can earn. The award has been given annually since 2009 to a college that employs a holistic approach to reducing achievement gaps between student groups and increasing success for all, and past Leah Meyer Austin Award winners have gone on to receive national acclaim. For ATD Network colleges, the collective successes and experiences of past LMA Award winners adds significant value to being part of a national reform network. An example of one such success and the opportunity for peer learning occurred during ATD’s Holistic Student Supports Institute in early October, when a team from 2019 LMA Award winner Amarillo College presented a workshop on the college’s Culture of Caring Poverty Initiative. 

Just eight years prior to receiving the Leah Meyer Austin Award, Amarillo College began their journey with ATD as part of the 2011 cohort of new ATD Network colleges. At that time, more than half of their students lived in poverty, 61 percent needed developmental education classes to become prepared to do college-level work, and 71 percent could attend only part time because of work and family demands. Three-year graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students, as well as first-generation students, significantly lagged behind their peers. 

Before working with ATD, Amarillo collected a considerable amount of data, according to Cara Crowley, vice president of strategic initiatives at Amarillo. The college didn’t always use the data in strategic ways, however. Through intensive work with their ATD data coach, Amarillo College was finally able to understand their data and to understand who they were as an institution, including their students. They had a stronger grasp on student needs, and the institution made sweeping changes in its use of data and in its ability to address poverty, the issue students identify as the most significant barrier to their success. 

Amarillo College introduced predictive analytics to understand trends in student performance and identify where crucial improvements needed to be made. It redesigned developmental education to accelerate student progress and improve retention. Working with community partners, it created a suite of supports that include a campus food pantry, legal aid clinic, career services, emergency funding for utility bills, community partnerships to improve local transportation and childcare options for students, all with an eye toward eliminating poverty barriers. The results have been significant, as Amarillo College experienced considerable gains in graduation rates among all students and key subpopulations.

The college has nearly doubled its three-year graduation rate from 13 percent for the fall 2011 cohort to 22 percent for the fall 2015 cohort. During the same period, three-year graduation rates for Black students increased fivefold, from 4 percent to 20 percent. For Hispanic students, rates moved from 15 percent to 22 percent; for first-generation students, from 12 percent to 21 percent; and for students receiving Pell Grants, from 14 percent to 23 percent. All student groups are now graduating at similar rates. By understanding their data and acting on it, Amarillo College was able to fully eliminate equity gaps.

By understanding their data and acting on it, Amarillo College was able to fully eliminate equity gaps.

In recalling her work with their ATD data coach, Crowley says, “We couldn’t have done what we did without them. We had an awakening around the reality of our data and student success.” At the ATD Holistic Student Supports Institute in Chicago, the workshop presented by Crowley and Jordan Herrera, Amarillo Colleges’ Director of Social Services, shared the learning around implementation of Amarillo’s campus-based Culture of Poverty Institute, which addresses poverty barriers. They took the attendees on their journey of self-discovery and discussed the college’s changes in how they work in support of their students. 

When asked about her advice for colleges considering applying to Achieving the Dream, Crowley stated, “If you’re willing to take that step and join ATD, then you’re willing to recognize that your institution needs to make some changes. Ideas introduced to me through people I’ve met through Achieving the Dream are consistently brought back to our institution and implemented. [Joining Achieving the Dream] will be profound for them as an institution, and most importantly it will impact their students and community in a positive way.”

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