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Showcasing Community College Programs That Make a Difference

Leon was convinced his dream of getting a degree in sports medicine to work as an athletic trainer was out of reach. It was the math. Even though he studied hard, Leon would always freeze when it came to taking tests.

Then a high school recruiter for Pasadena City College (Calif.) told him about Math Jam, an intensive summer bridge program where an incoming community college student can brush up on math skills and learn how to prepare for college, particularly for math tests, in a friendly, no-stress environment. With Math Jam behind him, Leon successfully passed his college placement tests and is now on track to pursuing his dream.

Elena works as a home health aide in a small community along the Oregon coast. While Elena enjoys her work helping elderly patients stay independent, as a single parent it has been increasingly difficult making ends meet on her minimum wage salary. She wants her two junior-high-aged children to go to college and decided she should set the example.

On the advice of a counselor, Elena enrolled in a medical aide certificate program, which is part of the Health Sciences Career Pathways program at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay. When she successfully completed the 18-hour certificate, Elena had gained enough confidence to continue into a pharmacy technician program, which will prepare her for a much higher-paying job working in a pharmacy. If she wants to continue, there is a clear career pathway laid out for an associate degree and beyond.

What do these two community college students have in common? They are enrolled in colleges selected to be a part of the Community Colleges CAN! Project, sponsored by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education. This twoyear project was launched to identify community college programs and initiatives that have created effective environments for student learning and achievement and to support the development of learning networks between practitioners at these colleges and others, based on a model of mentoring.

Community colleges across the nation are doing exceptional work at providing quality education and learning support for their students. They are drawing upon a range of approaches to help students build the capacity and interest for success within the classroom and the community as learners, workers and citizens. Community Colleges CAN! is committed to highlighting this work and sharing the stories of initiatives that offer promise for improving academic preparation and accomplishment among students.

The project also is aimed at encouraging program and professional development at community colleges in a variety of areas from developmental education and career tracks to science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs and learning communities. It will do this by bringing together practitioners to create communities of practice that will support the type of knowledge building, resource sharing, and skill enhancement necessary for the development of effective practices and initiatives.

Within a mentoring environment, practitioners will be encouraged and supported to reflect on their practice with colleagues, share expertise, receive guidance and advice, build strategies for tackling challenges, cultivate professional relationships, and extend the boundaries of collective knowledge in their field.

Many of the individuals who step into community colleges are pressed tightly by the demands of school, work and family. Each student may experience a unique set of challenges related to being a first-generation college student, returning adult learner or a member of an ethnic or racial minority. Colleges thus face the complex task of preparing a diverse array of students, who represent an assorted set of learning needs, for success within the classroom and the community. There is no one method for approaching this task, nor any simple solution to confronting the barriers to learning faced by students as they move along their educational paths.

Yet practitioners in community colleges are engaged collectively in a genuine effort to create conditions for learning that improve the chances of students such as Leon and Elena to graduate and move into meaningful careers. They are working to put in place learning environments that are relevant to their lives, that connect them with the highly contextualized world inside and outside the classroom, and that build upon a recognition that learning is an active experience of knowledge creation. Community Colleges CAN! seeks to support this work and further the efforts of practitioners to undertake initiatives and practices that truly help students fulfill their goals.

— Dr. Katherine Boswell is a senior program officer at the Academy for Educational Development and president of Education Policy Associates, a consulting firm. Dr. William Munn is a senior program officer at JBL Associates, Inc., a consulting firm that manages the Community Colleges CAN! program. The forum is sponsored in partnership with the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) at The University of Texas at Austin.

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