Guided Pathways to revolutionize Riverside City College

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By Erik Galicia

The way we think about a Riverside City College education is under reconstruction.

This semester is RCC’s first in the official institution-wide implementation of the Guided Pathways framework, an intricately designed system for mapping the educational paths of community college students.

“The Guided Pathways framework is a nationwide approach to getting rid of the cafeteria-style model for students,” said RCC counselor Monique Greene. “What we realized is that students were swirling. They were taking as many courses as they could with no clear defined direction.”

The Riverside Community College District’s data indicates that it has taken RCC students an average of four to six years to earn an associate degree or transfer to a university. The research also shows that students were not completing the expected 30 units within one year, nor were first-year students completing their mathematics and English requirements.

“Come to find out, we need to support our students better,” Greene said. “What can we do to help them get in and get out and get them to their career of choice? What types of support are needed during that time?”

RCC and Norco College were two of 20 California community colleges chosen to participate in the California Guided Pathways Project, which stretched from 2017 to this past September. Teams from the chosen colleges attended biyearly institutes where they received guidance on the creation and implementation of “clear pathways to high-quality credentials and … management strategies needed to accomplish this goal.”

The structure of Guided Pathways is made up of four pillars, beginning with clarifying the path.

“In clarifying the path, you start looking at the end point … and then build the map backwards,” said district Chancellor Wolde-Ab Isaac.

Isaac explained the district’s creation of nine “academic clusters,” some of which are STEM, health-related sciences and advanced technical trades, in order to simplify the pathway selection process for students.

“The second pillar is to onboard students into these pathways,” Isaac said. “We wanted technology assisted onboarding into well-mapped out academic clusters. An onboarding should be very simple.”

The chancellor likened EduNav, RCC’s online registration system, to a GPS that “maps out the default path” for students depending on what academic cluster they enter. He explained that, like a GPS, EduNav can reroute students who have strayed from their paths so they can continue toward their educational destinations in a timely manner.

“The third pillar is you have to make sure that students stay on the path,” Isaac said. “So they don’t drop out. So they don’t feel isolated.”

RCC has placed a heavy focus on the creation of engagement centers and student success teams meant to help prevent the feeling of not belonging to the campus community and to provide assistance to students on a more personal level. There are five engagement centers throughout the RCC campus that cover the nine academic clusters.

According to Isaac, the engagement centers will provide “a structured but less formal way of learning outside the classroom” that creates a “sense of belongingness.”

Although the reconstruction of education at RCC has been going on behind the scenes for a number of years, Isaac admitted that students have come and gone without ever knowing of the support available to them. The administration is now trying to find ways to make students aware of the changes and new available resources.

“We don’t have a very elaborate orientation to show them all the services and where they can be found,” Isaac said. “So through these engagement centers, we are providing … services so that students experience this support inescapably. They cannot say they never knew it. If you are a chemistry student, you will never say, ‘Oh I didn’t know they had a lab,’ because it’s a requirement that you’ll be going to a lab.”

The fourth pillar of Guided Pathways is to ensure that students are learning, which requires a complete re-examination of the way teaching and learning occurs in the college district. 

“We have students from all walks of life, from different ethnicities and nationalities,” Isaac said. “And we see a great deal of inequities.”

According to the chancellor, it has been observed that Asian and Caucasian students are more successful than Hispanic and African-American students. One of the goals of Guided Pathways is to identify the root causes of these inequities and bridge that success gap by creating a “bigger cultural competency and sensitivity in our faculty.”

“When you look at our teachers, they are predominantly from one group,” Isaac said. “And they will teach the way they’ve always been taught how to teach. But now we have to start creating an awareness that our students come from different walks of life and our teachers must understand that our students’ needs differ.”

Mark Sellick, the district Academic Senate president, explained that Guided Pathways is aiding the institution in its duty to combat the economic disadvantages that many students face.

“A huge part of Guided Pathways here is to help people get out of the cycle of poverty and create conditions for a more just social order,” Sellick said. “In order to pursue those ends, you must understand the problems. We are dealing with a large LatinX and African-American population. How does the history of systemic racism affect them? What is being done about it? What should be done?”

Sellick, who teaches political science at RCC, also explained the new framework’s focus on building students’ competence in their particular disciplines.

“If someone is taking political science as a focus, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What are we giving them? What are they leaving with?” he said. “If we want students to be able to work on campaigns or run for office, we need to equip them for that. Do they need to be skilled writers? Critical thinkers? Skilled negotiators? Can they take on the identification of a person from a different culture?

“That’s a different way of thinking of political science because it’s not just political science skills.”

Chancellor Isaac suggested the need to improve teaching from simply lecturing facts to students into a participatory teaching and learning process that includes project-based teaching and the introduction of apprenticeships and internships.

He expressed confidence that the grouping of over 20,000 RCC students into the designated academic clusters will allow the institution to efficiently track and support these students as necessary. This caseload model assigns each counselor about 500 students, but also provides two educational advisers to help each counselor as well as 10 tutors per discipline.

“If we use people efficiently, we can do it,” Isaac said.

According to the chancellor, the district has already seen its graduation rate start to rise and also expects a 100% transfer rate increase in the next five years. He explained that the former assessment-placement system was “psychologically devastating” to students and that this semester’s implementation of a state bill that allows students to bypass remediation is aiding students to accomplish their career and transfer goals.

“Even if students were A students in high school but they failed our assessment, we took them through remediation,” Isaac said. “This is what we call the deficit-minded approach. Now, we don’t look at our students as coming to us with deficits. We look at them as coming to us with assets.” 

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