Redefining Transitions in North Carolina with Basic Skills Plus
August 2013, Volume 16, Number 8
By Clark W. Dimond III, Randy Whitfield, and Pat Phillips
James Barnes has always loved cars. Now completing his second semester at Davidson County Community College (DCCC), James enrolled in his first automotive course while finishing his GED®. Aside from his wife, none of his immediate family has ever attended college; but James is on track to complete his associate degree in Automotive Systems Technology in 2014, and is about to complete his first certificate in Engine Performance Systems this semester. Participating in his first automotive class helped influence James to finish his GED® so he could continue in the automotive program. James’ success has extended beyond academics. He is a leader in his automotive classes and recently was elected president of the Automotive Club at DCCC by unanimous vote.
The Changing Landscape of Basic Skills
America is at a crossroads on the highway to the future, and requirements for the nation’s workforce are changing. By 2018, nearly two-thirds of America’s jobs will require some level of postsecondary education or training. Helping adults like James, who come to the college with low academic skills or having dropped out of high school, make a successful transition to further education and meaningful employment may be our single most important task in the 21st century.
According to GED® testing service, 63% of GED® test-takers aspire to attend college or a career training program. However, out of every 100 GED® graduates, 43 enroll in college with only five earning any sort of credential.
The federal funding for adult basic skills programs is authorized through Title II of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), originally passed in 1998. This law provides services to high school dropouts, high school graduates needing to improve academic skills, and English language learners. The Act, which expired in 2003 and has been extended each year, is currently up for reauthorization by Congress.
When authorized, the new Act will almost certainly include language requiring basic skills programs to provide traditional adult education, workplace literacy activities, family literacy activities, and English language acquisition activities, but for the first time may specify workforce preparation activities, integrated education and training, and that funded programs help students transition to postsecondary education and training through career pathways.
In North Carolina, federally supported adult basic skills are provided through a network of community-based organizations and the state’s system of 58 community colleges. Since 1997, North Carolina community colleges have offered a program called Pathways to Employment that combines basic skills instruction with short-term job training and employability skills instruction to put unemployed people with low academic skills back to work.
Building on what was learned from Pathways to Employment, and experience since 2005 with the national Breaking Through initiative and a federal grant called Ready for College, in 2010 the North Carolina Community College System Office was ready to roll out a new statewide program to help adult learners make the transition from basic skills to postsecondary education and the workforce.
Basic Skills Plus
This new program, Basic Skills Plus, is a career pathway program that links basic skills instruction to occupational/technical instruction, provides expanded student supports, and accelerates students’ progress to a credential of value in the local labor market.
Local colleges create career pathways based on area workforce needs that are verified by the local workforce board and partner employers. Instruction includes contextualized basic skills courses connected to job-specific occupational and technical skills courses which can either be regular college credit classes or may be part of the extensive, noncredit continuing education programs offered through the community colleges.
In addition to the core academic and occupational instruction, students are required to learn employability skills, often provided through North Carolina’s unique Human Resources Development program at each college which offers instruction on an array of topics, including career awareness and how to find and keep a job. If a student requires developmental education as a prerequisite to a credit occupational course, it can be included in the pathway.
In addition to leading to simultaneous completion of an adult secondary equivalency and an entry-level college certificate or an industry credential, most colleges also include earning the Career Readiness Certificate as part of Basic Skills Plus career pathways.
The heart of Basic Skills Plus is the connection between basic skills and occupational instruction. Students are required to be co-enrolled in both, but that is just the beginning. Instructional delivery must support an accelerated approach, so instructors in both classes meet regularly for planning, and many colleges include team teaching as part of the program. Along with integrated and contextualized instruction, colleges provide extensive academic support outside of class through supplemental instruction, regular and peer tutors, and academic support labs.
In addition to direct academic support, students receive other services like advising, transportation, child care, and financial aid counseling. Often student supports are augmented through partnerships with local human services agencies and community-based organizations.
A critical problem for many basic skills students is that, while federally funded basic skills classes are offered free of charge, occupational courses are not. Moreover, students who have not yet completed a high school equivalency are not eligible for federal financial aid. North Carolina has addressed this problem by allowing colleges to waive tuition and registration fees for students enrolled in Basic Skills Plus occupational courses.
Case Study: Davidson County Community College
One of North Carolina’s original Breaking Through colleges, Davidson County Community College, in Lexington, N.C., has long been a leader among the state’s community colleges. DCCC has developed Basic Skills Plus career pathways in eight fields: Automotive Technology, Logistics Management, Nursing Assistant, Pharmacy Technology, Welding, Health Information Technology, Early Childhood Development, and Computer Information Technology.
Students at DCCC begin with a mandatory orientation which includes success-building activities like a college tour, career exploration activities, and academic assessments. Students pursue the secondary equivalency through either Adult High School or GED® preparation. All career pathways include Human Resources Development classes, and developmental education classes are also provided if required.
Davidson County Community College is also a leader among the state’s community colleges for the extent to which it has contextualized basic skills course content to occupational subjects. More recently, the college has expanded its use of technology-based curriculum materials, including Work Keys, to prepare students for the Career Readiness Certification. Basic skills course content is further integrated to occupational instruction through the use of team teaching.
In order to assure students’ success, DCCC has developed a number of internal and external partnerships. Within the college, the Foundational Studies and Academic Support area, through which basic skills classes are offered, has established ties to other academic departments, Workforce Development and Entrepreneurship, and areas responsible for student advising, student records, financial aid, the Career Development Center, the Learning Commons, and the library.
Partners in the community providing support to students include the Davidson Works and Northwest Piedmont Council of Government workforce boards, the JobLink Career Centers, Goodwill Industries, Davidson County Transportation, North Carolina Department of Employment Security, and Health and Human Services.
Also completing his second semester at Davidson County Community College, Zachary Earles has plans to complete his associate degree in Welding Technology. As a 2012 GED® graduate, his dream of pursuing a welding career is in clear view. Zach is about to complete his Basic Fundamentals Certificate in Welding Technology. He was one of the first at DCCC to take classes in Basic Skills Plus and to experience a team-taught course through the Accelerating Opportunity Program. When asked what he likes about welding, he said, “There are so many things to do that welding never gets boring.” He hopes to be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college and he is clearly on track to do so.
The guidelines that govern Basic Skills Plus were first approved by the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges in October of 2010 and contain several points on which to measure student success. A number of milestones and momentum points were identified which include earning six or more college credits that count toward a credential, the successful completion of any developmental education courses required by the students’ pathways, successful completion of required Human Resources Development Course(s), completion of a noncredit continuing education course that leads to a credential, completion of a college success course, and completion of the Career Readiness Certificate.
From two colleges that were approved in the fall of 2010, Basic Skills Plus had grown to 43 colleges by the end of spring 2013, with more in the application stage. Colleges have established 147 separate career pathways in 12 career clusters, and a number of approved colleges have added additional pathways to those initially approved. Likewise, the number of students has grown from just 126 in the spring of 2011 to 983 in fall of 2012, and in that time 432 students have earned college credentials and prepared to transition to further education or good jobs.
The purpose of Basic Skills Plus is to help basic skills students like James and Zachary to transition more quickly to further education and be better prepared for the workplace. As the program continues to grow, it shows every evidence of fulfilling its purpose.
Clark W. Dimond III, Ed.D., is Director/Team Leader of Foundational Skills and Workforce Readiness with the North Carolina Community College System.
Randy Whitfield, Ed.D., is Associate Vice President of College and Career Readiness with the North Carolina Community College System.
Pat Phillips is Associate Dean, Foundational Studies & Academic Support, at Davidson County Community College in Lexington, North Carolina.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.