Federal grant aims to raise retention rates

This is the second year in a row that OCCC has received funding from a federal Title III grant awarded to the college in September 2014. The grant, at $2.2 million, has provided decision-makers at the college with resources to affect positive, long term changes to freshman students and keep them on track to graduate, said Joel Swalwell.

Swalwell is director of Grants and Projects at OCCC and project director for Title III.

The main goals of the project, listed on the Title III page on OCCC’s website, are to redesign the first-year curriculum for incoming freshmen and to enhance the academic advising services to optimize success. The grant is entitled “A Model for Improved Student Experiences: Strengthening Academic Programs and Student Services.”

In the first year of the grant, two gateway courses, English Composition I and Success in College and Life, were completely redesigned and implemented, Swalwell said.

A rise in retention rates for at-risk students will be the key to seeing whether the grant has had the impact its designers are hoping for. Swalwell said this coming fall might provide the first results for retention changes.

Greg Gardner, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, was on the front end of coordinating the grant.

This year four more courses are on track for redesign, Gardner said. The redesigned versions of General Biology, Microeconomics, Introduction to Psychology, and English Composition II will be piloted this summer, adjusted if necessary, and in the fall will be fully integrated, Gardner said.

Students who are taking these courses over the summer will be the first at OCCC to do so. Over the next three years, nine more courses are expected to undergo similar revisions.

Gardner described the process of redesigning curriculum as backwards. Determining what the course will look like at the end comes first. From there, goals are set to ensure that outcome.

“The first thing you do is ask yourself what do you want students walking out of this class to take with them?” he said.

All of the redesigned courses will allow teachers the freedom to still bring their own personalities and style to the classroom.

“Most teachers here are in it for the love of it,” Gardner said.

Swalwell has been directly involved with several large grants awarded to the college, including a Department of Labor grant for $2.5 million.

Preparation for Title III began in late 2012. The bulk of the work, Swalwell said, took place during the spring of 2013 in order to meet the submission deadline in May. Every detail of the grant must be assessed ahead of time before the grant is ever awarded.

“Grants are usually mission-specific,” Swalwell said. OCCC wanted to improve the first year experience of students.

All the changes brought about by the grant will be sustained by the college once the grant is complete. Swalwell said you can think of it as a “capacity-building grant.”

In addition to the main goals of the project, there will be nine (possibly 12) classrooms completely redesigned and a physical renovation of the advising and registration area.

The grant has created five new positions on campus, including Swalwell’s position as Project Manager. OCCC’s endowment is also set to benefit from an additional $166,000 from the grant.

Three classrooms, 2E3, 2E5 and 2F2 have already undergone their makeover and can be found on the second floor in the Arts and Humanities building.

The “ultimate classroom” is how Gardner described them. Gardner said that the classroom redesigns were centered around collaborative learning, flexibility, and technology.

All of the new classrooms feature modular furniture and computers arranged around the exterior of the room, leaving the center open. This provides space and an ideal setting for the group work essential to collaborative learning.

For further questions Joel Swalwell can be reached at jswalwell@occc.edu.

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