Sunday, February 10, 2008

Day Six in America - 7 February 2008

Housatonic Community College - Bridgeport - 7 February 2008

Hernan Yepes - Director, Student Development and Services

I met with Hernan in the afternoon, after an early arrival at the college. The college itself was light, bright, full of wonderful artwork, excellent facilities and it had a feel that the students valued it. As you can see from the image below, the corridors are expansive and large, vibrant paintings are hung on the walls. In Hernan's office, I had been speaking to him for half an hour, when he told me that the artworks on his wall were originals... they were Picasso originals, in his office! Hernan stated that it was a great place to work!

The President's office

Hernan and I started our conversation about the fact that the community colleges are now coming back into the city as part of a regeneration project. I asked Hernan about work experience; he stated that this varied as it was largely dependent on the college and the programme. There didn't appear to be a Connecticut wide policy on this, however, where appropriate, this was taken advantage of. For example, in manufacturing and accountency, which are prominent areas within Bridgeport, work experience did take place. Hernan explained that certain courses developed as a result of employers wanting to 'grow their own' and work with colleges to put on courses. At present, there is a 'career counsellor' post that is being developed to make stronger links with industry. The college responds to the needs of industry as best as it can.

I asked Hernan if IT restrictions were put in place (e.g. blocking MySpace etc.). He said that there are filters if there are virus threats, but other than this, the college tries to be as liberal as it possibly can.

I spoke to Hernan about the types of targets that the college found itself driven by. He explained that targets set have undergone several incarnations. At present, the state government in Hartford are allocating funding dependant on numbers of students who enrol. From the discussions that I had with Hernan, there was much less emphasis on achievement and retention, however, as I have already found out from other colleges, it is possible that this is set to change. Hernan explained that every 10 years, a 'self-study' is written. This is very similar to our self-assessment report. The self study is in readiness for an NEASC visit. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges sets out the standards that schools and colleges should maintain. They are a bit like an OFSTED body, however, they do not inspect in the same way, and they are state wide, not national. The 'inspectors' that come into the colleges, are peers. They are not paid to do this work. The college has a long period of notice and the whole system is more like a 'critical friend' than something to fear. All the colleges that I have spoken to, to date, maintain that this is far more helpful that the OFSTED regime that I explained.

Hernan and I spoke about the accountability that UK FE colleges are faced with, in terms of achievement and retention. Hernan feels that 'graduation' is not a great measure of success; the students that study here may well drop out for many reasons, however, they have travelled a distance. There is absolutely nothing to stop a learner, who has failed, in enrolling two, three, four times consecutively for the same course, until they pass. Funding is not penalised as a result of this. Good practice agreements between the colleges state that students should not enrol more than two times, but if Hernan has good reason to believe that the student would benefit from doing the course a third time, then he can override this. He has autonomy of decision making, far more than colleagues in the UK. He is not bound by the same restrictions. I asked Hernan if there was any pressure on the college to get good graduation rates, and he said that there was. It was possible that funding could be affected by poor performance (that couldn't be accounted for). However, a wide proportion of the student body that come to the Housatonic Community College are from very poor backgrounds, and it is therefore understandable that graduation rates are as they are.

In terms of NEASC's work, if there were significant problems with any aspect of the college, they would lose their accreditation for certain courses, and then numbers would fall. This would indirectly have an impact on funding.

NEASC inspect every ten years, and there is a requirement for a progress check every five years.

As I discovered in other colleges, the definitions of successful outcomes and entry requirements differ from institution to institution. What universities want by way of maths, differs in each establishment. However, in order to overcome some of these issues, the colleges do work closely with local universities in order to agree compact arrangements to ease transition of graduating students to their institutions.

Hernan and I spoke about online courses. He stated that these are more popular where travel is an issue, for example, in IOWA, there are many online courses. However, at Housatonic, there isn't a great demand.

We discussed 'study skills'. All applying students need to sit the placement test. This appeared to be the case at every college that I've spoken to, so far. Hernan recognised that there is a pattern; where students gain low results in an aspect of their writing, reading, maths skills, they also show lower abilities in time management, organisation etc. The developmental courses (pre credit courses) guide the learners through every skill needed for college; these courses raise students up to college level. There is also good access to academic support in the counselling center. These offer workshops in skills like time management, test anxiety, career advice, reading, writing, maths. There are 75% of the student body on the developmental courses and if students succeed, they typically progress. Hernan explained that many of the learners were ESL (English Speakers of other Languages) and strong links with community groups were important.

I asked Hernan about motivation, in terms of grades on developmental courses. There is a grade for 'maintaining progress', 'Grade M'. This is good for some students who need to see that they have been awarded something.

Hernan gave me the student catalog, which included all the policies that the students need to have. I felt that this was a useful idea, giving the students a set of policies from the very start. All the usual policies were in there; discipline, behaviour, academic progress, children in classes (which is an issue that has been mentioned more than once). I will share these upon my return.

I asked Hernan about discipline; was there an issue? He stated that there were only about 3 per month and these were usually really silly things that were easily dealt with. By law, all colleges are bound to publish all cases of discipline matters and these are in the public domain. This is known as the 'Cleary Act'.

I asked Hernan about his working day. He does work long hours, but this is out of passion for his role rather than any other pressure. He is in a union, which states that his working week is 35 hours. He does not have to do more than this, but chooses to because he loves his work. For example, this weekend, there is a Sunday programme to help inner city potential students to come and fill out financial aid forms. They will be fed too!

It was an interesting meeting with Hernan, and I was able to build more of a picture of how the colleges function.

Following my meeting with Hernan, I was invited to the college's museum for an arts opening. The college is in an incredible enviable position in that it houses some very sought after pieces of artwork, and also exhibits local work. This exhibition was called 'illustrating Connecticut'. The students within art and design are able to benefit from this wonderful set up!

Areas of interest and good practice to share:

  • Working with industry to develop courses
  • Liberal IT access
  • Good links with other language communities
  • Policies pertaining to students in the student catalogue
  • Strong security working side by side with an 'open door' feel
  • Very strong emphasis on basic skills as demonstrated through testing BEFORE students placed on courses
  • Strong compact arrangements with universities
  • Art gallery within the college

1 comment:

Richard Booth said...

Seems like a good institution and interested to hear about their more 'open' IT policies.

Also like the idea of links with an art gallery!