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The Secret Sauce to District-Wide Guided Pathways Governance and Employer Engagement

Five students in their caps and gowns

Graduates of the Alamo Colleges District

This post is the fourth in a series about guided pathways implementation.

When a bison is confronted with an approaching storm, rather than run away from it or wait it out, the bison will run directly into the storm. In a similar spirit, as the Alamo Colleges District wrestled with how best to implement guided pathways across five separately accredited colleges serving over 100,000 students, we decided to face the challenge head-on and make some major changes.

As a result of these changes, we have seen substantial increases in graduation rates and a decrease in the number of excess credits students earn for their degrees. Under the leadership of Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores, we received the national distinction of the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award, and four of our five colleges were recognized by the Aspen Institute as eligible for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

No big deal, right? (Please cue dramatic music for effect.)

Over the past five years, the Alamo Colleges have organized all programs into six Alamo Institutes (the district’s name for meta-majors) which encompass transfer and workforce programs as well as noncredit training: Creative and Communication Arts, Business and Entrepreneurship, Health and Biosciences, Advanced Manufacturing and Logistics, Public Service, and Science and Technology. In consultation with area employers and universities, the colleges have also mapped every program of study, reorganized student onboarding, and instituted case-management advising by institute to better help students explore options and interests, develop an academic plan, and become part of an academic and career community in a field of interest to them.

For us, it’s about having the heart of an educator (and a bison) and rolling up our sleeves to support students. It’s about ensuring our work leads to improving the alignment of academic programs with career paths and strengthening a seamless transfer process to the baccalaureate with minimal loss of credits, time, and money.

From my perspective as vice president for academic success at San Antonio College (one of the five colleges in the district), I’ve identified at least four more specific strategies for ensuring strong governance and employer engagement as part of guided pathways reforms that might be readily transferrable to other institutions. These include creating district-wide Institute Advisory Committees to engage regional employers and redesigning the roles of program chairs and deans to better align with the Alamo Institutes implementing a district-wide Pathways Leadership Council for the governance of pathways.

Reimagining the Role of Academic Chairs

During our redesign work at San Antonio College, President Robert Vela had a vision to make the program chair position more aligned to the Alamo Institutes.

Departments housed within the Institutes underwent some restructuring during Institute implementation. While the broader Institutes remained consistent district-wide, I worked with Deans Vernell Walker and Conrad Krueger to decide which programs would be realigned to create new departments and ensure equity in workload for chairs. We considered criteria such as the number of faculty, coordinators, staff, buildings, off-site locations, and accreditations for each program, as well as the total number of special programs, workforce programs, and transfer programs within each Institute. This process resulted in two significant changes in the program chair role: the number of chairs was reduced from 21 to 12, and chairs assumed oversight of both transfer and workforce programs. Previously, they had been responsible for one type of program or the other.

To support this shift, the academic chair position was changed from a 10.5-month faculty contract to a 12-month administrative contract focused on program quality and improvement. While the realignment of chairs based on the list of criteria was unique to San Antonio College, all chairs across the five colleges transitioned into 12-month administrative contracts.

Making Deans Pathways Catalysts

With academic chairs overseeing workforce and transfer programs, deans also needed to have blended oversight over the two areas. Deans of academic success now oversee Institutes that include a mix of workforce and transfer programs. The redesign of the deans’ role took place district-wide, and many chairs across colleges also became responsible for workforce and transfer programs, though this has varied according to how each individual colleges implemented the redesign. These changes in roles created a major opportunity for deans to build a sense of community with academic chairs, as they removed traditional silos between transfer and workforce programs and faculty.

Complementing this structural change to the role of dean, I was charged to lead the vice presidents and deans for academic success from the five colleges to develop a model to redesign the responsibilities associated with the dean’s position. The presidents of the five colleges supported us to figure this model out on our own without predetermined parameters.

So, no pressure, right? Much brainstorming ensued, but I think many educators can relate to the eventual “aha!” moment I had at 2:00 a.m., when I snapped awake, riffled through a folder, and held up a document that became the Holy Grail for our redesign for deans. I vaguely recall the paper seemed to glow in my hands.

I knew it was critical for the model to be connected to a national framework for pathways reform. So we aligned the revised dean’s job description to the essential capacities identified in the document What Is the “Pathways Model?,” developed by CCRC and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Pathways Project—that luminous document that inspired me in the wee hours of the night.

Now, the responsibilities listed in the dean’s job description are organized according to the core design pillars of guided pathways: clarifying paths to meet student goals, helping students choose and enter a pathway, helping students stay on path, and ensuring that students are learning.

Forming a Pathways Leadership Council for the Governance of Pathways

Another key approach was the creation of the Pathways Leadership Council, which provides district-wide governance of pathways and serves as an integrated, systematized leadership collective for the five colleges. The council is responsible for the communication of best practices, planning, assessment, and ensuring alignment across colleges. It also advises senior leadership and serves as the steering committee for the district-wide Institute Advisory Committees.

The Pathways Leadership Council is led by two co-chairs who rotate every year or so. Its members include deans, vice presidents, and vice chancellors of academic and student success, who meet monthly. The leaders on the council also lead their respective college’s pathways committees, which include faculty champions, advisors, and other key leaders.

There’s herding cats, and then there’s herding mountain lions. Running a district-wide committee requires dynamic leaders who are diplomatic, yet strategic in balancing dialogue and moving initiatives forward. Those individuals must also navigate the politics between different colleges and have an awareness that distinct personalities can shift the conversation.

Engaging Regional Employers in Strategic Conversations

The Alamo Colleges District continues to engage in strategic dialogue with the community through Institute Advisory Committees that are aligned to pathways. We host biannual signature events to engage regional employers, the Board of Trustees, San Antonio Works, Chamber of Commerce partners, university partners, district and college administrators, faculty, and advisors. These events have provided opportunities to strengthen our Institutes with employer recommendations for ways we can strengthen pathways for our students to excellent careers in demand in our region.

Closing Thoughts

This has been such rewarding work! We have documented our model for inspiration and perhaps as a stress reliever so your institution does not have to begin implementing guided pathways without a blueprint as we all share the collaborative goal of improving the lives of students.

On my San Antonio College profile page, under “resources,” you’ll find booklets outlining the processes I shared. Now you don’t have to wake up at 2:00 a.m. to figure it all out because I’ve already stayed up for you!

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