Community Engagement Plans Improve Student Success

Peta-Gaye Brooks came to North Carolina Central University with a hunch that she might like to teach math: she knew that she wanted to make a difference, but her plans weren’t yet concrete. For some students, a lack of clear direction in a college career may lead to disruptive changes in degree path, poor academic performance, or even a failure to graduate. North Carolina might have lost one of its most promising new teachers even before she stepped foot in the classroom.

But Ms. Brooks did not allow her career uncertainty to disrupt her academic performance or degree completion; instead, her intellectual curiosity and her experience with community-engaged service fueled her eagerness. Four years of work for NCCU’s America Reads program reaffirmed that education would be a rewarding career choice and gave her the direction she was looking for. On Saturday, December 8, 2018, she walked across the graduation platform with a degree in hand, primed and eager to teach in a high school classroom.

NCCU has a long and storied history of encouraging students and faculty alike to get involved with community engagement. In fact, in 1996, the university instituted a requirement that all undergraduates contribute 15 hours of community service per semester. In 2011, community-engaged service was incorporated into criteria for faculty promotion and tenure. As a testament to its commitment to community engagement, NCCU has repeatedly received the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification and has earned multiple showings on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

And yet, despite NCCU’s already remarkable work, in November of 2018, the university outlined a rigorous plan to enhance its engagement efforts.

NCCU’s plan was just one of 17 submitted to the UNC System Office. Each constituent institution formalized a commitment to develop, expand, and/or promote its community engagement efforts as part of a System-wide push to have a more significant impact throughout North Carolina.

Ms. Brooks’ story is a potent reminder that, when UNC System students contribute to these institutions’ engagement efforts, they feel more committed – both to their coursework and to the surrounding community. Their odds of graduating from the University and keeping their talents in the area increase exponentially.

Partners in Education

Each institution’s community engagement plan is unique, reflecting the remarkable diversity across the UNC System.

Many of these plans build on partnerships with neighboring public schools. By pooling expertise and consolidating efforts, universities and public schools will ensure that North Carolinians have access both to quality education at every level and to the economic, social, and personal rewards that education brings.

“We’ve worked hard to break down the silos dividing our universities, our community colleges, and our public schools,” said UNC System President Margaret Spellings. “Together with North Carolina’s other public education systems, we are expanding the pipeline so that more students, at a younger age, see college as a viable and rewarding option. These community engagement plans show that our efforts will continue long into the future.”

Three institutions, for example, outlined their involvement in North Carolina’s laboratory school initiative with their community engagement plans. The lab schools are venues where the University’s education-prep programs can partner with local education agencies (LEAs) to help improve student performance in underserved regions.

Appalachian State University has partnered with Forsyth County Schools at Academy at Middle Fork in Winston-Salem. Western Carolina University has partnered with Jackson County Schools to operate Catamount School. UNC Greensboro has partnered with Rockingham County schools to open the Moss Street Partnership in Reidsville.

Encouraging Multiple Pathways to Success

While the lab schools rework school curricula wholescale, other engagement plans will home in on more specialized student needs. These plans reveal how the UNC System’s impact is broad and diverse.

UNC Pembroke, for example, is piloting new ways to help Robeson County students acquire the life skills that rarely get taught in high school. The seeds for the university’s unique take on P-12 engagement were planted when an initial survey suggested that few regional students felt prepared to live on their own.

“We had expected students to be curious about college social life and classes,” said UNC Pembroke Director of Community and Civic Engagement Christie Poteet, “Instead, many expressed anxiety about the prospect of living independently. They were far more concerned about being able to accomplish basic tasks, like managing money, cooking, applying for jobs, or even purchasing insurance plans.”

A more rigorous follow-up survey revealed that many of these same students didn’t have a clear sense of direction or realistic expectations about their post-secondary school track. Fifty-four percent of the students surveyed expected to attend college—yet only 30 percent of them were academically prepared to do so. Even among those students who were on track for higher education, many lacked the basic understanding of how to pursue their ambitions.

To address these student needs, UNC Pembroke will begin designing workshops and programs that help young adults develop the life skills they will need to live, study, and work independently.

Working with Robeson County school officials, UNC Pembroke determined that its engagement efforts will primarily target high-school freshmen. Ninth grade is the pivotal point when students’ future plans begin to firm up. When the pilot program begins at South Robeson High School in 2019, workshops will help participants determine an appropriate path and to develop the know-how to get there, whether it’s attending college, applying for jobs, or entering the military.

In addition to teaching college and career readiness, curricula will also address a broad range of topics related to financial literacy, self-care and healthy living, communication, leadership, volunteerism and service, safety, goal setting, and self-advocacy.

This dedication to improving the general well-being of Robeson County residents is indicative of UNC Pembroke’s longstanding service mission. Like NCCU, UNC Pembroke has received the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification.

“Community engagement is a hallmark of UNC Pembroke and has been for more than 131 years,” said UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings. “Reflecting our core values of service and collaboration, this visionary program connects resources and expertise to ensure our high school students graduate with those life skills so important for success in today’s world.”

“In addition to a strong high school education, students today need to know about financial literacy, self-advocacy, goal-setting, effective communication, and all the skills this project will emphasize,” he added. “Without question, they will be better prepared to be valued members of the workforce and engaged citizens in their communities.”

Reading Success, Breeding Success

Six Durham elementary schools comprise “The Eagle Village.” As the name implies, the students who learn here have been taken under NCCU’s wing.

This partnership between the Durham Public Schools (DPS) and the university is a vital tool for promoting a “college going culture” in Durham. Students get help at an early age developing the skills they will need to carry them through primary school and on through college. Just as importantly, they learn from an early age that the university is integral to their community. For them, a quality education is within reach—in fact, it’s right around the corner.

“We embrace our responsibility for being connected to those schools,” said Director of Community Engagement and Service Calleen Herbert. “Our aim is to help students understand at a young age that they are part of our community and that we are a possible route for post-secondary education.”

At the heart of NCCU’s efforts is its America Reads program. This program enlists NCCU students to tutor at the Eagle Village schools. The goal is to have the elementary school students reading at grade-level by the time they reach third grade – a pivotal year, when teachers and administrators begin to evaluate students’ readiness to advance to the next grade level.

Young people should begin to recognize the value of education and community at an early age. Fittingly, then, NCCU’s engagement plan reaches area children well before they even reach kindergarten. Each Eagle Village school offers Pre-K programs. Because volunteers from NCCU’s Early Childhood Education licensure program can serve in these classrooms, Durham’s youngest learners will benefit from the help of eager college students specifically trained to work with their age group.

NCCU students who volunteer with America Reads must commit to at least one day of service a week. The program enlists roughly 50 volunteers a year, and NCCU anticipates doubling this number in the future. Many of these volunteers visit their tutees as frequently as three to four times per week. NCCU’s America Reads volunteers have logged as many as 3,309 hours in a single year. In addition, book drives have netted over 340 books, distributed to elementary-aged readers and their families who might not otherwise have easy access to reading material.

That’s a lot of pages getting turned, both literally and figuratively; as young learners enjoy positive and enlightening reading experiences, new chapters in their lives will open before them.

Keeping Talent in School and in the Community

Educators stress that service-learning is a hyphenated phrase, indicating its dual approach to teaching. Both UNC Pembroke’s and NCCU’s plans reflect how community engagement isn’t just about serving … it’s also about teaching the UNC System’s own students.

One of UNC Pembroke’s prototypical programs demonstrates how the act of helping others improves the odds of success for college students. The university requires all students who wind up on academic probation to enroll in a course called “Strategies for Success.” Recently, those at-risk students have engaged with high school students to share what they wish they’d known before coming to college. Teaching thus becomes a form of self-reflection—a positive feedback circuit that reinforces the lessons learned in the “Strategies for Success” course.

In general, any service-learning opportunity helps students forge a deeper connection to course curriculum. Service-learning offers high impact learning experiences, where theoretical ideas covered in the classroom turn into practice in the field. And, when students work cooperatively with their peers and with members of the community, they develop the soft skills they will need to be successful in their careers.

Service-learning is such an effective teaching tool that, according to some studies, students who are enrolled in a service-learning course during their first two semesters of college are retained at a higher rate than their counterparts.

For example, recent data from one Research 1 institution in the Midwest suggested that, among students who completed at least one service-learning course, 47.7 percent stayed on course to graduate. Among their peers who had no exposure to service-learning, only 34.4 percent remained enrolled. In short, service-learning improved the odds of completion by 28 percent.

Service-learning also helps students forge stronger connections with the community around them. When students contribute to the towns where they study, they typically develop a sense of belonging that extends beyond the campus walls. This in turn creates an incentive for students to remain in the region even after they’ve graduated from college.

NCCU explicitly factors this into its long-term vision for strengthening area schools. According to Durham Public Schools’ (DPS) own analysis, teacher turnover in the area is roughly 20 percent over a four-year period. As the top producer of licensed teachers in the city, NCCU is committed to DPS’s plans to reduce this rate by 2023.

Enlisting students to participate in community engagement is a critical strategy in accomplishing this goal. Administrators are quick to point out that the elementary school students aren’t the only members of “The Eagle Village.” The university’s faculty and students are as well. By partnering NCCU students with elementary school teachers and students, the engagement plan naturally prepares graduates of NCCU’s licensure programs to teach in the local schools. Just as importantly, it encourages them to stay in area classrooms for the long haul.

“We are growing the teacher workforce from home,” said NCCU Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovative, Engaged and Global Ed Ontario Wooden. “You can literally walk to Fayetteville Street Elementary from our school of education in 15 minutes. Keeping our most promising new teachers in the area is about folks having that connection and seeing these schools as their home.”

A System-Wide Call for Creative Solutions

These engagement plans are part of an ambitious UNC System-wide effort to expand and enhance its impact on communities across the state.

During President Margaret Spellings’ tenure, the University has taken important steps to ensure that students are not the only beneficiaries of its work. Higher Expectations: The Strategic Plan for the University of North Carolina 2017-2022 calls for the University to “increase investment of time and resources in strengthening North Carolina communities.”

In pursuit of this goal, Higher Expectations directed each constituent institution to submit a plan for enhancing community engagement efforts. By October of 2018, System Office staff had received materials from each institution: 17 institutions, with 17 ambitious, unique, and deliverable plans to assist a North Carolina community or region in need.

In essence, these plans provide roadmaps for how each institution will partner with community organizations and businesses to improve quality of life in neighborhoods and regions throughout the state.

These plans aren’t lofty pipe dreams or vague ambitions. Instead, they delve into the specifics. Each outlines a regional need, planned activities intended to address the need, required resources, metrics for assessing progress, and targeted outcomes.

In addition to the work to improve regional education outcomes, some institutions are dedicating resources to provide much needed health-care services in under-served areas. Some are pursuing plans that will strengthen and revitalize economically distressed areas.

Still others have both presented plans in which arts and arts education will play a significant role improving residents’ quality of life.

In the coming weeks, more information about all of the institutional community engagement plans will be made available across various outlets, and each institutional plan will be posted on the UNC System website.

Investing in the Community Pays Dividends

When Peta-Gaye Brooks received her teaching certificate in December, her achievement represented the fulfillment of the UNC System’s twofold mission: to prepare students for successful careers and to serve North Carolina communities.

Hard work in the classroom isn’t the sole basis for her success. Service in the community also played an indispensable role in getting her to the graduation platform. More than that, it has prepared her to lead her own classes, ensuring that she will continue to serve the community long after graduation day.

“NCCU’s America Reads program provided me with the tools I need to teach,” Ms. Brooks explained. “And, it ignited my passion for a career in education.”

Through the University’s organized engagement plans, knowledge is created and shared, students at every level progress academically and professionally, and North Carolinians can witness some of the tangible results of public investment in the UNC System.