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Innovative Community Colleges Vie for the Highly Coveted Bellwether Award

Rose M. Martinez

Rose M. MartinezRose M. MartinezTwenty-six community colleges from 14 states met in San Antonio for the 28th Annual Community College Futures Assembly last February. Highly proficient project management teams convened for the three-day event with unbridled enthusiasm to compete for one of the most prestigious community college distinctions, as recipient of a Bellwether Award. The award focuses on cutting-edge, trendsetting programs worthy of replication.

The Bellwether College Consortium is an independent think tank that annually hosts competitive teams from across the nation. These community colleges earn the distinction of being named Bellwether Finalists. They are selected through a rigorous two-round process and the ten top-scored community college programs compete in one of three award categories: 1.) instructional programs and services; 2.) workforce development; and 3.) planning, governance, and finance.

Competing teams vie for both the Best in Showcase Award and the coveted Bellwether Award. Bellwether Award criteria include addressing a critical issue with an innovative response that is replicable, scalable, and equity-focused, and demonstrates data-evidenced success. Showcase winners are selected based on a short elevator pitch of their innovative program, a table-top poster elaborating on each judged criterion, and the college representative’s ability to address all program-related questions comprehensively. Seasoned practitioners and policy influencers serve as judges for both competitions.

What does innovation look like?

An Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot that maximizes efficiency and efficacy of academic and student support staff is an example of an award-winning submission. Other examples include: a project manager to facilitate cross-campus collaboration on new technologies; an offender re-entry training program in trades, business, and healthcare; an entrepreneurial initiative to grow minority, micro, veteran, bilingual, and women-owned businesses; and an 18-week workforce development program with a 93% employment rate.

The 2022 Bellwether Award winners were:

• The Community College of Baltimore County (MD) won for its submission, General Education as a Mechanism to Promote Equitable Access to High Impact Practices, in the award category of Instructional Programs and Services.

• Houston (TX) Community College won for its submission, Celebrating Entrepreneurship: The Foundation of America’s Economy! in the award category of Workforce Development.

• Ocean County (NJ) College won for its submission, Meet Reggie: The AI Chatbot Transforming Ocean County College, in the category of Planning, Governance, and Finance.

It’s more than a competition

Dr. Maya Durnovo, chief entrepreneurial officer at Houston Community College, says her college was eager to compete for the prestigious award.

“We knew that even if we did not win, we would learn a great deal from the other colleges in attendance by examining best practices from across the country," says Dr. Joaquin G. Martinez, provost and vice president for instruction at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), a previous Bellweather Awards winner.

Outstanding Dissertation Award

The inaugural Outstanding Dissertation Award competition was well-received as an addition to the consortium’s signature event. Dr. Pamela Stegeman won the award for her dissertation, Characteristics of Collaborative Community College/Economic Development Organization Partnerships: A Multiple Case Study. Stegeman is an associate professor at the College of the Desert. She earned her doctoral degree from the Community College Leadership Program, Kansas State University. Bellwether showcased Stegeman’s dissertation study, which provided insights into the key factors that contribute to sustaining lasting partnerships between community colleges and economic development organizations.

Great ideas

“The Alamo Colleges were wonderful co-hosts, and I was very impressed by the many innovative entries from our colleagues," says Dr. Gary Racioppi, vice president of student affairs for Ocean County College. The Bellwether College Consortium is housed and supported by Alamo Colleges District in San Antonio. Organizers plan to announce the opening of the 2023 Bellwether Award competition submission portal at    

Dr. Rose M. Martinez serves as director of the Bellwether College Consortium.

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.

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