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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 August 29 - 12:00 am

Kingsborough Providing Some Answers to Student Service Questions

 Kingsborough Providing Some Answers to Student Service Questions

By Paul Bradley

When it comes to providing the kind of student services that help community college students succeed, what works?

No one knows for sure, but Kingsborough Community College believes it is starting to provide some of the answers.

Located in Brooklyn, N.Y., the large, urban college is at the center of an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of learning communities, placing students in linked courses with themes and assignments which reinforce one another.

Called Opening Doors, the learning communities seek to build peer relationships, intensify connections with faculty and deepen understanding of coursework, according to MDRC, an education consulting firm which is evaluating the program. With financial assistance from MacArthur Foundation’s Network on Transitions to Adulthood, the approach is being tested at five community colleges in addition to Kingsborough.

While learning communities are nothing new in higher education, the evaluation effort at Kingsborough represents one of the few times an effort has been mounted to come up with rigorous evidence on their effects.

A March 2008 report by MDRC indicated that results so far have been encouraging, but mixed.

The report compared students enrolled in learning communities between 2003 and 2005 with a control group of students taking regular classes. It found that the program:

  • Improved students’ college experience. Students felt more integrated and engaged than students in the control group.

  • Improved educational outcomes while students were in the learning communities, but the effects diminished later.

  • Moved students more quickly through developmental English courses. Students in the program were more likely to pass the college’s English skills assessment test.

  • Produced mixed results about whether students in Opening Doors were more likely to re-enroll in college.

College president Regina S. Peruggi said Kingsborough, with its rich diversity and large size, was an ideal setting to test the learning communities approach. The college serves about 30,000 full- and part-time students a year who come from 110 different countries and speak 68 different languages. Many earn less than $25,000 a year. About 75 percent of those who enroll must take remedial English classes.

“These kinds of services are critically important at community colleges,” she said. “Our students come to us with a variety of problems. They have hard lives.”

Kingsborough’s learning communities targeted freshmen who planned to attend college full-time and did not require an English as a Second Language course. Students were placed into three linked courses: English, usually at the developmental level; an academic course, such as psychology, history or health; and a one-credit orientation course.

The program provided enhanced tutoring and gave students a voucher for textbooks. Class size averaged 17 students. Currently, about 60 learning communities are in place, comprising about 12,000 students, about 65 percent of all incoming freshmen.

Peruggi said the program was modeled after an existing ESL learning community that was launched at the college in 1995. But the involvement of MDRC offered a rare opportunity for an exhaustive, long-term evaluation of how well it works.

“It’s always important to be able to demonstrate that what you say is real,” Peruggi said. “MDRC gave us the chance to document that we’re doing is working. Now, there can be no quibbling.”

Peruggi said a chief challenge in making learning communities work has been knocking down barriers – those between student services offices and an institution’s academic arm, and those separating academic departments themselves.

“You really need to have faculty willing to cross boundaries,” she said. “Initially, some were wary. But when they saw how it worked, they really embraced it.”

Rachel Singer, the Opening Doors project director, said the approach gives students a valuable overview of the academic paths they are traveling.

“They are making a lot of connections they were not making before,” she said. “We use a history course to improve writing. Then there is the whole issue of social networking. They build networks and do a lot of teamwork. There is a huge social advantage, especially for students who maybe were not so successful in high school.”

Still, Kingsborough recognizes that learning communities are no panacea. A critical shortcoming of learning communities is the difficulty in keep them together as the academic careers of students naturally diverge after the first year of school.

To combat that, Kingsborough is planning to implement learning communities based on students’ career paths. That way, they would remain intact for more than a single year, Singer said.

In addition, officials said, learning communities are expensive. Mindful that the grants which helped launch the program eventually will expire, Kingsborough is gradually embedding learning communities into their annual budget.

Still, the learning communities initiative has been so successful that Kingsborough officials have been traveling around the country to community colleges to share their experience.

The traveling may soon come to an end, however. Kingsborough is considering starting an on-campus institute where officials from other colleges can come and hear  about learning communities.

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