Focused on retaining students in first two years

Focused on retaining students in first two years
By Ellie Ashford, Published March 7, 2012

Original article published in and can be accessed here.

A partnership between a San Francisco community college and university that has improved at-risk students’ persistence and completion rates is gaining national interest.

The Metro Academies Initiative, a partnership of the two-year City College of San Francisco (CCSF) and San Francisco State University (SFSU), provides extra help during the first two years of college to about 700 low-income students, first-generation students and those from underrepresented minority groups.

CCSF and SFSU each have two Metro Academies, one focusing on health careers and another on early childhood education. Additional academies on science, technology, engineering and math are planned for both institutions. Each academy serves up to 140 students in a “school with a school.”

Focused on the first two years

The Metro Academy concept is basically a “redesign of the first two years of higher education,” Mary Beth Love, co-principal investigator of the Metro Academies initiative at SFSU, said at a recent briefing in Washington, D.C.

The first two years of college are a “very leaky pipeline” for many students, Love said, especially for those from the most at-risk population, who tend to be the least prepared and have challenging work and family obligations. For many students, college tends to be “a solo journey through a series of disconnected courses,” she said.

As a result, many such students drop out, and many community college students waste time earning more credits than they need in order to transfer.

“If we can just get them to their junior year, they are almost home free,” Love said.

In it together

Students in a Metro Academy stay with the same cohort for four semesters in a series of classes that are aimed at accelerating the mastery of foundation skills, such as critical thinking, oral communications, writing and quantitative reasoning. Savita Malik, curriculum and faculty affairs director for the initiative, called the academy “a long-duration student learning community.”

The instruction aims to strengthen classroom engagement by having students work with real-world data “that addresses their own realities,” Malik said. For example, students in her class are studying food policy at the national and local level, and their assignments include writing letters to the editor.

Because students in these populations don’t generally spend much time on campus, student services are embedded in the academies, and academic counselors and financial aid advisors meet with students in their classrooms, Malik said.

Metro faculty also take part in learning communities aimed at creating a culture focused on student success, she said.

Knowing that support is easily available can be critical. When Camille Jackson learned at her first Metro Academy class at CCSF that four or five faculty members would stay with her academy cohort throughout their community college experience, the 19-year-old said it “really made me feel confident.”

A counselor helped Jackson map all the courses she needs to transfer to a four-year college, provided support with personal issues, and helped set up study groups for her.

“When you miss a class or an assignment, Metro teachers call you. I wouldn’t have been able to get as far as I have without Metro in my life,” said Jackson, who plans to transfer to SFSU in 2013 and pursue a career in criminal justice.

A nudge toward success

At the community college level, the academies provide the core of general education courses leading to guaranteed admission to the California State University system.

An evaluation of the program found that students in the Metro Academy of Health at CCSF have better outcomes on persistence, passing and credit accumulation than their non-Metro peers. Metro students progress more rapidly and are 9 percent more likely to achieve 60 units.

Among SFSU students, 82 percent of those in Metro Academies persisted into the fifth semester, compared to 64 percent of all first-time freshmen and 61 percent of students from the same population as Metro students.

SFSU Provost Sue Rosser said four other community colleges in California—Diablo Valley, East Los Angeles, El Camino and Long Beach City—will serve as demonstration sites and are working to establish the Metro Academy model in collaboration with nearby four-year colleges.

The next step is finding the money to start those programs, Vicki Legion, co-principal investigator for the Metro Academies Initiative at CCSF, told Community College Times.

“This is scalable and sustainable,” said SFSU’s Love.

The initiative has received federal and foundation funding, including a $700,000 Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help spread the concept across the country. It has developed a toolkit to help other college adapt the model.

Although the concept works best in a partnership involving a community college and a four-year institution, two-year colleges could do it on their own as long as they can work out an articulation agreement, Legion said.