Tuesday, March 06, 2012

League 3: Inclusion Day

 “I realized that I was more than I was showing.”  - A young man in a video about the Center for Male Engagement at the Community College of Philadelphia

Every educator knows the wonderful feeling when a student who hadn’t shown much suddenly catches fire.  Day 3 was devoted to students like that.  Even though I usually suffer pretty awful conference fatigue by the third day, this was a wonderful way to wrap it up.  In various ways, nearly everything was about ways to include students who sometimes get excluded. 

Inclusion is more complicated than it sounds.  I had a women’s studies professor who used to say that feminism can’t be reduced to “add women and stir;” larger changes had to happen to make the environment truly inclusive.  We can’t just add students and stir; the trick is managing so many variables while staying both sustainable and sane.

Some of the variables were obvious.  Wes Moore, the keynote speaker, gave an especially effective rags-to-riches story, punctuated with lines like “community colleges are not just in the process of training the next generation of American workers.”  I wish some politicians understood that.  Pre-emptively deciding that the kinds of students who attend community colleges will never be capable of anything more than rote tasks is both classist and demonstrably false.  If we’re going to continue to produce alums like Wes Moore, we’ll need to be able to do the full range of liberal arts, robustly and without apology.

Some folks from the Center for Male Engagement at the Community College of Philadelphia explained their work, which is devoted to improving success rates among young black men.  CCP’s student body is majority African-American and about two-thirds female, and it has experienced many of the same stresses as community colleges have nationally.  The statistics they offered suggested that they’ve been successful in improving the pass rates and retention rates of African-American men, usually by double digits.  (I admit perking up at that.)  They received significant grant funding from both the U.S. Department of Education and the Open Society Foundation (George Soros’ group), and used the money to offer a panoply of services including counseling, support coaching, early alert tracking, and even a four-day camping retreat with stipends paid at the end for successful completion.  (The idea there was to have students bond with each other, so they wouldn’t feel isolated on campus.)  The discussion was bracingly honest.  During Q & A, someone asked about dress codes, and the presenters freely admitted that part of their job involved setting an example for how men dress in a professional context.  Strikingly, in discussing the courses with which the men struggled, one presenter mentioned that the students do markedly well in CIS.  If I had the panel to do over again, I would have asked more about that.  I suspect there’s something there.

Other panels were more specialized.  One discussed concurrent enrollment programs, in which I quickly learned that there’s a difference between dual enrollment and concurrent enrollment.  Concurrent enrollment refers to college classes taught by high school teachers in high schools during the high school day to high school students.  Dual enrollment refers to college classes taught by college faculty, often on the college campus, in which high school students are also enrolled.  Who knew?  The presentation quickly became a group discussion in which it became clear that each state does dual and/or concurrent enrollment very differently.  Arrangements that are becoming popular in one state would be illegal in another one.   There’s also a distinction to be made between programs that reach the cream of the crop high school students, and programs designed for dropout prevention.   In both cases, the idea is to extend college to students who otherwise might not have it.

Even the nerdier stuff in the afternoon was geared toward inclusion.  An instructional designer and two faculty discussed course redesign, with the goal of helping adjuncts do a better job in the classroom.   And a panel of state-level policy people presented on attempts to create sustainable structures for continuous improvement of college performance in three states (Massachusetts, Michigan, and Virginia). 

I’m wiped, but happy to report that some very smart people are asking some of the right questions, and relying on actual, empirical evidence to answer them.  That may lack the sex appeal of “disruptive innovation,” but it’s the only way to go.  Thanks, Philadelphia.  And thanks to the supportive reader who emailed me – I’m not kidding – to tell me where the coffeemaker was in the room.  Some things are important.