Learning Council Applies Equity Lens and Identifies Strengths/Opportunities of Student Success Efforts

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

During the March Learning Council meeting, members collaborated to apply and enhance their current racial equity knowledge and ability by assessing a Valencia policy using anti-racist criteria. They also supported the institutional planning process (in particular, the learning plan) by identifying strengths and opportunities in key features of our student success efforts.

Assessing Valencia Policies using Anti-racist Criteria

Shari Koopmann, professor, English, and Aida Diaz, professor, Spanish, began the meeting by facilitating a discussion of Dr. Estela Bensimon’s article “The Case for an Anti-Racist Stance Toward Paying Off Higher Education’s Racial Debt.” They asked their colleagues to select a passage that resonated with them or one that left them with questions. Several colleagues were struck by Dr. Bensimon’s recognition of the risks associated with using the terms “racist” and “anti-racist:”

“I am aware of — and to some degree anxious about — the reaction many have to labeling policy as ‘racist’ or ‘anti-racist.’ Straight talk about race and racism is not always welcome in higher education or in most realms of sociopolitical life. Labeling any particular policy as ‘racist’ may be interpreted as an attack on the policy’s architects or implementers.” 

Members wondered how we might reconcile the helpful elements of Drs. Kendi and Bensimon’s frameworks and language with the negative reactions they can elicit as we continue our Valencia journey to advance racial equity. 

Next, Shari and Aida guided their colleagues through a discussion about Table 1 in the article: Criteria to Assess Anti-racist Higher Education Policy, asking: Do any Valencia policies/practices/programs come to mind as you read the description of each segment of the table? The Valencia policies that came to mind for Melvin Middleton, West Campus evening and weekend manager, are those associated with hiring practices, search committees and application screening.

“I would say that our assessment work is anti-racist and the faculty development courses we have created to support it are as well,” shared Lisa Macon, professor, software development, while Leonard Bass, dean, learning support, added that “the graduation goal of closing the five-year gap for all ethnicities gets close.”

Nichole Jackson, director, learning assessment, shared another example of an anti-racist process: “Some Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs offer identifiable solutions to remove barriers for Black and Latinx students to “see themselves in industry” by ensuring advisory boards and exposure to practitioners in the field are representative. 

The question “Does the policy identify its intended outcomes as anti-racist?” was the criterion that generated the most discussion. Bensimon explains that anti-racist policies “avoid vagueness and names race and specify numerically, improved outcomes for Blacks, Latinx and Indigenous populations.” Racist policies, in turn, identify outcomes in terms of benefitting “all students,” “every student,” “success for all students,” “underserved students.” She adds that “vagueness around naming specific groups leads to generic strategies, usually coming from a Whiteness perspective [and] also suggests a lack of comfort talking about race.”

Ana Caldero Figueroa, dean, arts and humanities, addressed this criteria directly, acknowledging, “We use ‘all students’, ‘every student’ and ‘underserved populations’ all the time!” Upon further reflection, Ana shared that this made her think that we “have been accustomed” to using that language thinking we are being inclusive but we have not. In response, Katie Tagye, director, organizational design and development, “that just made me think … as long as those setting the language are in the majority, in this case are white, we are likely to think we’re being inclusive but may not be.”

Next, Council members worked in small groups to examine the College’s Instructional Materials Policy using Dr. Bensimon’s Criteria to Assess Anti-racist Higher Education Policy, and several members commented on the difficulty of this exercise. Nichole noted that “the vagueness is present,” referencing the section that reads: “the selection process will ensure that materials reflect diverse viewpoints, where appropriate.” 

Vasudha Sharma, professor, chemistry, indicated that she noticed that full-time members select the books and wondered, “If full-time members are largely of a certain race and pick authors from the same race, perhaps students might miss the richness in the diversity of this world.” Lauren Thomas, professor, mathematics, added that “sometimes the racist ideology does not always manifest in the policy statement itself but maybe how it is carried out (i.e. procedures).”

Shari and Aida concluded this portion of the meeting by asking about the implications for Learning Council future work that will be covered during the next meeting. 

Strengths and Opportunities in our Student Success Efforts 

LaVonda Walker McKnight, faculty, New Student Experience, and Leonard Bass, dean, learning support, facilitated the second half of the Learning Council meeting, focused on supporting the institutional planning process. Council members had been asked to read the report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement called “The Heart of Student Success: Teaching, Learning, and College Completion.” 

LaVonda and Leonard asked their colleagues to work in small groups to examine three of the primary areas from the reading:  

  • integrating student support into learning experiences; 
  • expanding professional development focused on engaging students; and 
  • focusing on institutional policies on creating the conditions for learning.

Each group used a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis with specific questions to elicit ideas and recommendations.

With respect to integrating student support into learning experiences, the report explains that “students are most likely to succeed when expectations are high, and they receive the support they need to rise to those expectations.” It adds that “community colleges offer a wide variety of support services, but students cannot use services if they are unaware of them” and also “when they don’t know how to access them, find them to be inconvenient or feel stigmatized by using them.”

Council members isolated many Valencia strengths: from virtual tutoring and advising services to student development, communications and outreach. Among the opportunities they identified: embedding support within courses and in partnership with faculty and efforts to increase students’ sense of connections and belonging. 

In the area of expanding professional development focused on engaging students, the report states that “research abounds about what works in teaching and learning. Instructors, however, must be given the opportunities necessary to learn more about effective teaching strategies and to apply those strategies in their day-to-day work.”

Council members in this subgroup recognized our comprehensive and robust professional development at Valencia as a strength. They thought it would be important to make equity-focused programming available to staff. The group also discussed the risk that equity could be perceived as a box to be checked and felt that it may be necessary to incorporate equity-mindedness in the Essential Competency of a Valencia Educator to ensure greater, deeper institutionalization of equity.  

The report suggests that “institutional policies focused on student success are most effective when colleges mandate student participation in activities that are shown to increase persistence and improve student outcomes.” The subgroup that evaluated Valencia’s work in this area named the New Student Experience and New Student Orientation as strengths. Areas identified for enhancement include a required touchpoint with an advisor, expanding the reach of LifeMap, and drop for nonpayment practices. 

In April, the Learning Council will review the feedback gathered via this exercise and begin isolating specific strategies that seem especially powerful in advancing both learning and our equitable Impact Plan goals.

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