Addressing Achievement Gaps: Outlining a Method for Change Using Community Development Methods

Sacramento City College, Sacramento CA

Distance Education Disparities at Sacramento City College

Although the closing of the success rate gap between DE and on-ground modalities in the last year in the CCCs is rightfully celebrated, there are—within the disaggregation of those data—strikingly low success and retention rates in our Black student population at the CCCs; this is no exception at Sacramento City College (SCC) and its sister Los Rios District Colleges. The Wraparound Services grant at SCC is an effort to impact those disparities with the development of increased services for students in the DE environment.

SCC Wraparound Grant

The grant goals include the development of a robust online student support hotline, a case management process, a clearer understanding of ways to address the low DE success rates of our most disproportionately impacted students, and the sharing of successful practices. The most impactful and important of the grant goals is the effort to understand and address disparities in DE success rates of our Black students. Efforts to understand these disparities have already influenced systemic change at the college and will have a positive effect on the experiences of Black students.

A Community Development Approach: Organizing from the Inside

Instrumental to the understanding of the causes of lower DE success rates of Black is the use of community development methodologies, typically employed by community organizations aiming to change public policy or community practice but used in this case to strengthen the relationships between the micro-communities within the larger campus community and create change from within.

Larger Context of SCC: Systemic and Community Racism

No college campus exists separate from its community. In Sacramento, pervasive systemic racism is exemplified by the death of Stephon Clark, which mobilized national protests against systemic excessive use of force against Blacks. Several local incidents of racist attacks and even racist graffiti on the campus of SCC are indicators of the kinds of social injustice and bias that our Black students face every day. Campus administrators, staff, and faculty have been diligently working to address such social injustices, which undermine students’ abilities to feel safe in the community and focus on their academic work at SCC. But how does a whole college mobilize to erase the results of centuries of subjugation?

Efforts such as AB 705 and Chancellor Oakley’s commitment of the whole CCC system to mobilize in order to change the educational outcomes for our Black and other disproportionately impacted students have awakened our attention to the very real results of years of systemic bias and subjugation, but actionable steps other than the provision of extra resources to those students impacted are difficult to identify. As Isabel Wilkerson outlines in Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, the system of subjugating Blacks was set up intentionally hundreds of years ago and is successful in hiding its bias. Those of us living within its privilege—those of us most likely to be running the institutions themselves—have a difficult time seeing the systemic causes of disparities. That’s intentional by the design of the system. She cites research that “negative messaging about African-Americans” is so pervasive that even Blacks have an unconscious bias against themselves (187). This implicit bias baked into the US way of life causes inequities in housing, employment, healthcare, and even education. These inequities were codified, according to Wilkerson, in government programs such as the New Deal, Social Security Act, and Wagner Act—all of which “excluded the vast majority of Black workers,” thus also excluding them from the generational wealth that provides enough socioeconomic stability to pursue higher education (185). Her summary assessment is worth citing at length:

The very machinery upon which many white Americans had the chance to build their lives and assets was forbidden to African-Americans who were still just a generation or two out of enslavement and the apartheid of Jim Crow, burdens so heavy and borne for so long that if they were to rise, they would have to work and save that much harder than their fellow Americans.

Rather than encouraging a greater understanding of how these disparities came to be or a framework for compassion for fellow Americans, political discourse has usually reinforced prevailing stereotypes of a lazy, inferior group getting undeserved handouts, a scapegoating that makes the formal barriers all the more unjust and the resentments of white working-class citizens all the more tragic. (184-185). 

Whether the barriers to equity and success in higher education are formal or informal, they are part of a system that exacerbates disparities, especially in distance education where students require unfettered access not only to the academic technology required to enter the distance education environment but also the skills to use it and the information competency to navigate it. Additionally, as revealed in the nation’s sudden shift to online education in the COVID-19 pandemic, having safe, quiet workspace is also required and yet hard to come by for our most disproportionately impacted students.

How to Change Direction: Community Development as a Tool for Change 

Given the systemic causes of racial disparities in education, it will take systemic changes to counteract the centuries of inequality and subjugation. AB 705 is an example of wide, systemic change designed to reduce barriers to our disproportionately impacted students, but at the campus level, we also have a responsibility to our students to examine and change the system to correct such disparities as evidenced by the DE success gap.

Instead of a continuing or empowering a political discourse that reinforces unfounded biases and stereotypes, and instead of assuming on behalf of Black students what is necessary to change in our campus system of education, campus leaders must elicit change by bringing directly to the table those communities they most need to and  want to help. But despite seeing “a steady stream of research and writing that ties educational failure to the effects of poverty and racism . . . most educators have no idea what to do about that” (Warren and Mapp, 2011). I am no different. As a white DE Coordinator and principal investigator for this grant, I lack the in-depth understanding of what is needed in order to help Black students perform better in DE courses. Over the last year, I steeped myself in the research of social justice and systemic racism, and I imagined several one-time or reoccurring interventions such as provision of academic technology device access to assist Black students. But none would lead to permanent change. Turning to my experience as an ethnographer and working with community developers seeking social justice, I employed community development methods to bridge gaps between the justice we desire at SCC and the understanding of what we need to do in order to achieve it. And although this work has required the majority of the grant period to take root, it has a promising future.

What I Did and What You Can Do

Specifically, Community Development (CD) or Community Organizing works to mobilize community groups to elicit change from political or government systems or entities. In this case, I worked from within the campus organizational structure of shared governance to bring the Black and Latinx student community to the DE table for the foreseeable future in order to improve the system from the inside. I also started to and continue to build relationships with colleagues who support Black students on campus, working hard to bridge or break down the student services-instruction silos that seem to naturally result from institutional organizational structures. 

Access: Gaining Trust

Despite working within the same campus structure, it took time to gain the trust and commitment of the community of colleagues whose primary job is to support Black students. This time investment to “gain access” to any community is part and parcel of any kind of community development work, but it was an essential part of the nature of this project and resulted in conversations that helped create a method of change for the long haul rather than a series of one-time events that would be gone in a semester.   

What We Created: Student DE Advisors

After numerous meetings and communications that ran right into the COVID-19 Great Shift to fully online campus operations, it became clear that the originally planned and scheduled focus groups of Black DE students facilitated by Black faculty colleagues would not be possible. The original goal of asking focus group participants to attend DE committee meetings whenever possible morphed into a job of Student DE Advisor where students already working at the campus Ashé and Rasa Centers that support Black and Latinx students would be hired to attend DE-related shared governance meetings regularly, learn about the DE environment in the district and state, and work with the DE Team long-term to help identify and institute systemic changes that would help Black students succeed in the DE modality. One of the tenets of community development work is that community members should be compensated for participating in community-related development or organizing work whenever possible in the interest of parity and accountability. College employees are paid to do the same academic work, and paying students to engage repeatedly in shared governance allows them to forego other jobs that might be too time-consuming to allow volunteer participation at the same intensity.  

A team of two students joined the DE team officially in the Fall semester, supplementing their peer advisor roles at their respective centers with 5-10 hours per week as DE Advisors. (See text box for detailed job description). The team of two students represent the Black, Latinx, and LGBT student communities, serving also as peer mentors for those student communities at SCC.

The two advisors meet with me, the DE Coordinator, regularly to discuss what they and their peers have been experiencing in the DE environment, results from special tasks they have been assigned such as gathering specific feedback from their communities and to discuss their perspective about the shared governance meetings they have attended. They also regularly attend meetings of the campus academic senate, district academic senate, campus student senate, DE committee, and other related committees. The more meetings they attend, the more they gain confidence in speaking at these meetings as a representative of students, and the more they can help me filter the shared governance processes through the lens of disproportionately impacted students.

What We Are Learning about the Black and Latinx Student Experience

From the process of gaining access and learning about the lives of our Black students, so much has been learned already.

Hard to Stay Positive

The racism on campus and in the larger community environment takes a toll on students. We ask a lot of our Black students, expecting them to concentrate on their schoolwork and achieve when they are busy trying not to worry about being confronted by police, about who wrote the death threats to Blacks on the campus bathroom walls, about how not to become a statistic of failure. This unfriendly if not harmful environment results in “chronic stress and, therefore, decreased physical and mental health and social and economic opportunity” or “mental bandwidth” (Verschelden, p. xiii). Constant campus discourse about the equity gaps of our Black students taxes mental bandwidth, reifying rather than alleviating self-defeating perspectives about Black student success, regardless of the good intentions of faculty and administrators. Our DE Advisors recommend focusing on what works, the core practices that successful Black and Latinx students share. Through the campus Guided Pathways efforts, we do the same for faculty and have created City Ways: four practices that successful faculty share. A parallel effort for Panther (student) Ways is in development, led by our DE Advisors to identify in their communities the shared successful student practices.

Achieving Digital Access is Challenging

We also ask them and all students to successfully navigate the complex and imperfect academic technology environment we have created for them: one which requires digital skills to enroll in the college and complete coursework but that promises in its SLOs to teach the very digital skills it requires for onboarding. Add to this the additional barriers of a lack of student academic technology capital—complete access to the technologies, requisite skills and digital information competency—and the imperfect use of Canvas by their faculty who may not be well trained in online pedagogy and tools. With the help of the DE Advisors, we learned that their communities were not well informed about the campus Student Technology Help Desk, which connects students to functional academic technology, whether that be helping to remove a virus on a student-owned laptop, helping a student navigate Canvas, or helping set up the Canvas app or a campus email account on a student smartphone. We learned that our promotional efforts are falling flat and that we need to find more effective ways of reaching our Black and Latinx students. We already know that we need to improve our faculty use of Canvas, yet affirmation of that by the student communities is additional evidence necessary to initiate change on a large scale across the district.

We are Important Role Models

As faculty, we are important role models for students and need to walk our talk. Recent discussions on campus about the mandated use of cameras in Zoom were impacted when a DE Advisor pointed out that faculty lack of use of cameras in their own meetings with other faculty should influence the rules they wish to impose on student use of cameras; if faculty have valid reasons why they don’t wish to use cameras all the time, they should recognize that students have valid reasons as well. At academic senate and other faculty-centric shared governance meetings, DE Advisors provide much-needed student perspectives that remind us about the real lives of students. At the 20th anniversary of the Community College Research Center in 2017, Dr. Jill Biden reminded us that we must “document the lived experiences of our students”; the presence of the student DE Advisors at the decision-making table helps us do just that. 

Most Influential Gaps Exist Between Silos

One of the largest gaps on our campus is the gap between instruction and student services, the organizational gap created when academic divisions exist too far away from the day-to-day operations of the student services divisions and their programs that serve our disproportionately impacted students. Collaborating across this organizational divide and welcoming each other to the decision-making tables that institute change on campus is a good step toward learning what changes need to be made to decrease the barriers to student success. The grant work that brought the DE Advisors to the DE shared governance table also brought student services colleagues to the same table and brought the DE Coordinator to the student services table; we are now working together more closely in order to identify systemic barriers and remove them. One result of this collaboration is the request to continue funding for the DE Advisors beyond the grant period and via the Distance Education campus Program Plan, partially funded by the Student Equity and Achievement Program. Funding their work from this resource provides accountability to the goals of reducing barriers to Black and Latinx student success, and it continues to help bridge the instruction-student services gap. The goal is for permanent funding to be located to support the DE Advisors positions permanently as a part of the campus DE team.

Change from the Inside Requires Outsider Perspectives

We have just begun our journey alongside our first set of DE Advisors (with more on the horizon as these move on to other academic opportunities beyond our beloved City College), and we are on the road toward changing our system for the better. Fixing any disparities requires a full understanding of those disparities as experienced from the perspective of those who suffer disparate outcomes, and once we understand those experiences, we can begin to fix the inequities they face in their lifelong learning journeys. Bringing students to the table and honoring their time with fair pay is a required step toward correcting the injustices established centuries ago and unintentionally reified by decades of incremental change that hasn’t gone far enough to eliminate systemic injustice.

Verschelden, Cia. (2017). Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization
Warren, Mark R., and Karen L. Mapp. (2011). A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform
Wilkerson, Isabel. (2020). Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

Kandace Knudson
Distance Education Coordinator

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District or those of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.