A FOCUS on helping MCC’s first-year students succeed

At an August training session for supplemental instruction leaders, small groups of MCC students prepared for their part of a practice SI session. The students are (from left) Bernice Abrenica, Mitchell Jurich and Austin Sullivan.
At an August training session for MCC students hired as FOCUS supplemental instruction leaders, small groups prepare to lead a practice SI session. The students here are (from left) Bernice Abrenica (MCC-Maple Woods), Mitchell Jurich (MCC-Blue River) and Austin Sullivan (MCC-Longview). K-W-L stand for What We Know, What We Want to Know, and What We Learned. (Photos by Tim Engle/MCC)

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you stumbled into a class of education majors.

This day in mid-August at MCC-Business & Technology, there’s talk about activity plans, Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, and how to engage non-participants in a class discussion.

The more detailed your outline the better, someone says, because once you’re in front of a class your nerves will kick in and you’ll forget stuff.

Then there’s writing in public. “I told you, when you write on a board, you forget how to spell,” says Kim Sides-Steiger, who’s leading the training session.

What’s actually going on is MCC students preparing to be supplemental instruction leaders. SI leaders are successful students paid to take an MCC class they’ve taken before, but the second time around, they will function something like teaching assistants — including holding after-class sessions to supplement the regular class. It’s all an effort to help struggling classmates.

Kim Sides-Steiger (left), coordinator of FOCUS supplemental instruction program, discusses lesson plans with new student SI leaders.
Kim Sides-Steiger (left), coordinator of MCC’s supplemental instruction program, discusses activity plans with new student SI leaders. (Click any photo to see it larger.)

The SI program may be news to you, but chances are you’ve heard of FOCUS, even if you don’t know what the acronym stands for. Supplemental instruction is just one facet of MCC’s expansive FOCUS efforts across all five campuses.

Here’s the lowdown on FOCUS:

+ It all started at MCC with three grants from the U.S. Department of Education, announced in the fall of 2013. The grants will total about $12.7 million over five years. Year 1 started in October 2013, which means we’re now about to start Year 4.

+ You’ll sometimes hear FOCUS referred to as “Title III.” That comes from the federal government: Title III Part A, aka Strengthening Institutions. The broad focus of Title III at MCC is to better serve first-year students, particularly those with high potential for success but who are not quite prepared for college-level studies. Ultimately, the goals of FOCUS are to improve academic quality and increase student success, retention and completion.

+ FOCUS is MCC’s name for the effort. It stands for Fundamentals for Outcomes, Completion, Understanding and Success.

+ One of MCC’s three grants is institutional — in other words, districtwide, but applicable to any campus. Another targets MCC-Penn Valley and the third MCC-Blue River.

If you made a FOCUS pie (chart), the big wedges would be labeled something like this:

Developmental education, classes some students have to take to prepare for college-level work.

Freshman-level gateway courses. For instance: Math 120, College Algebra, is a class that qualifies for MCC’s popular associate in arts degree.

The first-year experience.

Intensive student advising, aka case management.

Peer mentoring is one of the major pieces of the FOCUS effort. Students Victor Cole (left) and J'Ron Collins are both peer mentors at MCC-Penn Valley.
Peer mentoring is one of the major pieces of the FOCUS effort. Students Victor Cole (left) and J’Ron Collins are both peer mentors at MCC-Penn Valley. (Photo by Elyse Max)

Peer mentoring of at-risk, first-year students.

Supplemental instruction.

And instructional and student development technology.

That’s a big pie.

Fifteen MCC employees have become full-time FOCUS staff members. Melissa Renfrow, for instance, is an MCC-Maple Woods English instructor serving as grant manager for the institutional FOCUS grant. Across the five campuses, many faculty and staff members are involved as well.

Throw a dart on any campus and you’re likely to hit a FOCUS pilot course. A common goal of these pilots, Renfrow says, is trying to move students through developmental classes quicker. Those classes do not, after all, count as college credit, but they do consume financial aid.

So far FOCUS has introduced eight dev-ed pilot models, in English, reading and math.

An example: Students sign up for dev-ed class English 30, Basic Writing Skills II, the same semester as gateway credit class English 101, Composition and Reading I. This “triangle” model has one instructor teaching the section of English 30 as well as two sections of English 101, with the English 30 students divided among the two other sections.

The idea of sending half the developmental English students into one section of 101 and half to the other is that they’re “surrounded by students who are modeling appropriate academic behavior and a strong skill set,” Renfrow says.

“It can be disheartening when you’re placed in all dev-ed courses,” she adds. But in this case, when students understand that English 30 will help them master a class that counts toward a degree, they see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“The sooner we see them have that success in the dev-ed coursework, the more likely they are to persist and complete,” says Tammie May, FOCUS grant manager at MCC-Penn Valley. In other words, odds are greater they’ll stay at MCC and earn their degree.

In the case of the English 30/English 101 combo, preliminary results are encouraging, Renfrow says. The percentage of dev-ed students who pass English 101 goes up 22 percentage points, to 56 percent, when they take both classes the same semester and taught by the same instructor.

Another FOCUS pilot created a learning community — one group of students taking more than one class together — that paired a developmental English course with developmental reading as well as College 100, the first-year experience class required of most new students.

The Title III grants are research grants, Renfrow points out. MCC research analysts are constantly crunching numbers from the pilot courses.

“We’re gathering data to understand what worked and what didn’t,” May says. “We’re making tweaks. We’re improving.”

The majority of students in a developmental combo course “may not make that acceleration point” — successfully test out into the gateway course — “but we’re seeing students do it,” May says.

A similar concept has been applied to dev-ed math classes as well, with students using a self-paced, computer-based program.

Those pilots and other redesigned courses are supported by the “wrap-around services” such as intensive advising, supplemental instruction and peer mentoring.

In keeping with the Title III mission, the FOCUS efforts should end up strengthening MCC as an institution. Kim Poindexter, FOCUS grant manager at MCC-Blue River, says the College is charged with developing new curricular options and changing some business and student development processes — all “to foster student success, retention and completion.”