Southwest Tennessee Community College’s student-centered approach to addressing equity

“When we think about advancing equity and justice, it requires that we place students at the center of the work.”

Earlier this month, Achieving the Dream team kicked off the What Comes Next? series of webinars for the 2021–22 academic year. This dynamic series is designed to challenge participants to rethink how they approach equity and consider a holistic approach to identifying and dismantling systemic barriers to student access and success.

The first webinar in the series was “Turning the Page: How Faculty are Using Data to Address Equity Gaps in the Classroom.” With guests from Southwest Tennessee Community College (Memphis, TN), an ATD Leader College, Achieving the Dream’s Network Engagement and Programs teams discussed how institutions of higher education can look more closely at classroom data, ask where equity gaps exist, and explore how faculty can strengthen their teaching to improve learning outcomes.


Walking the equity walk

Southwest Tennessee Community College (Southwest) shared how they have used data, professional learning, and evidence-based teaching practices to advance equity in their presentation entitled “Courageous Conversations: Data, Equity Gaps, and our Moral Imperative.” Southwest, a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI), is committed to closing equity gaps across the board, but particularly between Black and white student populations.

The Teaching Academy at Southwest, part of the college’s Title III IDEAS (Inclusive Design for Equity in Academic Success) grant program, focuses on how to expand culturally responsive, race-conscious, and evidence-based pedagogy through professional development. Key to this work is placing students at the center of teaching and learning.

Dr. Jennifer Townes, assistant vice president of strategic employee and organizational development, said as part of their professional development it was important for staff and faculty first to understand the historical and political context of Memphis, where Southwest is located. This contextual understanding should not only include the realities of racial and economic injustice, but also the culture and the assets that diverse students will bring to the college.

Letting students show us how to improve education

To guide their work closing equity gaps, Southwest leveraged student data. Based on their findings, the college redesigned the admissions process for its Honors program, adopting a holistic approach that includes an interview, essay, and resume submission rather than a mere assessment of a student’s GPA. Making this change has allowed the program to be more culturally responsive, and faculty recognize that the process will continue to evolve as they gain more insights from the student experience.

Dr. Jacqueline Taylor, Southwest College’s ATD teaching and learning coach reminded webinar participants to center students’ humanity when examining equity gaps: “Remember that there is a real person behind that data,” she said.

Alma Rutledge, project activities director for the Title III: IDEAS grant program, said the support she received from ATD and from Dr. Taylor has made a difference in her work. “I was so thankful that I had people to reach out to… to help me dive into our data.”

Rutledge discussed how patterns exposed through data exploration helped to validate the college’s equity and inclusion initiative. She shared feedback and reflections from faculty who had participated in the initiative. “Students show us how to improve education,” said one participant, capturing the student-centered approach that has driven transformation at Southwest.

Achieving the Dream is proud to partner with Southwest, and hundreds of community colleges across the country, as they work to address equity gaps in their colleges and communities. 


ATD Network colleges are invited to register for the next webinars in our What Comes Next? series. Join us on October 5 for “Understanding Prospective Students for Recruitment and Enrollment,” to learn how to adapt to recent changes and reach more prospective students in the communities you serve. Check out our Events page for even more upcoming sessions.

Not part of ATD’s Network but interested in attending a webinar? Contact network@achievingthedream.org.

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