By Sean Collins-Smith
Virginia’s success in the years ahead will depend a great deal on the ability of Virginia’s Community Colleges to be an effective bridge, connecting to both high schools and four-year universities, according to the four panelists at the “Strengthening College Readiness Through Collaboration and Innovation” Session at the 2011 VCCS Chancellor’s Annual Planning Retreat.
Making the transition to college
“There seems to be a gap between community colleges and four-year schools. Some students don’t transition very well,” said Barbara Saperstone, provost for the Annandale Campus at Northern Virginia Community College, during her opening remarks. She discussed several initiatives to increased cooperation between community colleges and other institutions, including an initiative launched in 2005 called The Pathway to Baccalaureate Program.
“It was designed as an access program,” Saperstone said. “We identify students in high school who want to go get their Bachelor’s [but] who are at risk of not graduating.”
The Fairfax County Public Schools website describes the program as an effort, “to provide support to students as they make the transition from high school to Northern Virginia Community College, and as they transfer from NOVA to George Mason University or another university.”
Saperstone explained that its core value was in the constant aid and support given to the students. “We work with them through eleventh grade and twelfth grade,” she said. “We hold their hand as they come into the community colleges, stay with them there, and walk them into a four-year school.”
If students complete the Pathway program with a GPA of 2.5, and finish an associate’s degree, they are guaranteed admission to George Mason University.
Standard high school diplomas are not enough
Hara Charlier (pictured, right), dean of life sciences and human services for Blue Ridge Community College, was another panelist in on the discussion. She spoke about the importance of sharing data among high schools and the VCCS.
“We have to collaborate and figure out what’s going on. There’s a disconnect somewhere,” she said. “I cannot overemphasize data gathering, communication, cooperation, collaboration, and leaving everything at the door in terms of ego.”
She shared some data extrapolated from one high school, where 93 percent of the students who got a standard diploma were not what the VCCS considered “college ready”. While she said they weren’t surprised by that finding, what really shocked the room was the next statistic: 50 percent of those who earned an advanced diploma were not college ready.
Charlier said they have plenty of work left to do, but that the data they’ve gathered thus far has been extremely useful. “We have learned a great deal just talking with these students,” she said. “Spending time with those high schools – and it’s a lot of time – is only the beginning, but it’s been fun.”
After the session concluded, the buzz in the room was positive.
“I thought everyone was really engaged,” said Rebecca Kittelberger, coordinator of reporting and assessment for the VCCS. “Everyone is very committed to getting the students ready and being successful, and I thought both the panelists and the questions reflected that concern and that commitment.”
The session’s facilitator, Eastern Shore Community College President Linda Thomas-Glover, agreed. In an interview following the session, she said she felt the goal they set out to achieve was more than met in the session. “Our overall objective was to just increase awareness across the system of some of the college readiness initiatives that are underway at four of our community colleges,” she said.
“However, I think the core part of what happened in there was that individuals were able to share their experiences of the types of things they have tried. Some of which have been successful, and some of which raised more questions than answers.”
Charlier confirmed that, and though she says the VCCS has come a long way with collaboration and outside participation, she concedes there are still many more high schools to meet with before the goal is realized. “I have not met a high school who does not want to work with us,” she said following the session’s close.
“They all want to. Time and resources, that’s the biggest barrier. But I think as it becomes a national agenda, we’ll all start to prioritize it. It’s some of the most rewarding work, though, to sit down with high schools and say ‘we’re all on the same page, now what are going to do to make this work?’”