Collaborations in the Classroom

COCC and local school districts are taking learning to new levels with Cascades Commitment

When higher education and high schools collaborate, the gears of college readiness fit tighter and turn smoother. That's the thinking behind Cascades Commitment, a Central Oregon academic partnership that offers community college credit to local high school students, credit they can plug into the pursuit of a degree or certificate. Students, with a transcript underway, start envisioning the shift to college, begin sighting their academic path it's an incredible head start for higher learning.

COCC has for a number of years maintained a program called College Now, which makes the high school-to-college move more realistic and attainable. It offers affordable, applicable dual-credits and operates with individual mentor relationships between college faculty and high school instructors: students are enrolled in college classes and taught by high school teachers, at their high school, with COCC oversight. According to the Oregon Administrative Rule (OAR), high school teachers must either hold a master's degree in the content area for transfer courses or, for career and technical education studies, possess a combination of industry experience and schooling.

Cascades Commitment is cut from the same cloth but it's stitched together quite differently. With an intent of adding more teachers and involving all the local schools, the credits offered and methods employed are completely reframed. Five, commonly required courses make up the program. Plus, the high school instructors receive training that yields college-level rigor and teaching methods while developing a working relationship with faculty.

Creating a Path

The flashpoint for Cascades Commitment was a Central Oregon K-12 superintendent's meeting some five years ago, attended by a number of regional educators. "A group of us started working on all the ways that we offer college credit in high schools around the state," explains Jennifer Newby, instructional dean at COCC, "to define those in some way, so that we're clear on the (dual-credit) relationships that exist between higher ed and the high schools."

This wide-angle perspective led to the formation of a new model. And, spurred on by a $450,000 state grant in 2014, Cascades Commitment (patterned after Eastern Oregon University's "Eastern Promise" program), narrowed the focus to offer foundational credits only: in math (two classes), writing (two classes) and history (one class). Five college classes offered to 11 high schools. "We wanted to pick courses that any student if they wanted to go into a career and technical program, or if they wanted to get a transfer degree would benefit from," adds Newby. "Anyone who is capable of doing the college-level work can sign up for it." These broad-based credits, in turn, should transfer to most colleges and universities. But a system of bringing instructors online, to qualify them to teach at the college level, needed to be hammered out. COCC faculty were integral in that role, Newby says, in creating a path - a nontraditional, but fully formed path that satisfies all requirements and standards and, of course, makes the program flow. The result is a method now finding a stride that centers on something called Professional Learning Communities (PLC).

Learning Together

High school educators who want to teach one of the COCC-level English courses, for instance, but don't meet the minimum qualifications, are required to initially attend a weeklong summer workshop at the college led by a full-time departmental faculty member. After that, they meet monthly for faculty-led PLCs in the evenings during the school year to go over assignments, discuss learning outcomes, sift through all the things that need to factor into an introductory writing course like WR-122. (The PLC requirements vary by subject.)

Annemarie Hamlin, Humanities chair at COCC, designed the writing workshop and PLC. She began by consulting with colleagues, school principals and several high school teachers to weave it all together. "I developed a five-day summer workshop that provides training in composition theory, composition pedagogy, and also COCC-specific materials, such as course outcomes, course syllabi and teaching materials," she explains. The workshop involves assignments and guest lectures and concludes with the formation of a complete syllabus, plus two writing assignments, that teachers use for their course. The monthly PLC, she says, consists of similar readings and activities with a dedicated focus on WR-122.

After the teachers advance through their PLCs, complete the hours and finish the work, they emerge on the other side with the necessary training to qualify. From there, they require a sign-off by certain individuals the department chair, the instructional dean and the vice president of instruction  and only then are they ready for final approval.

This last measure falls under a unique clause in the OAR, known as the presidential waiver, which permits the approval of dual-credit instructor qualifications. COCC President Shirley Metcalf confers the approval.

One of those newly qualified teachers is Amanda Felton, an English teacher at Ridgeview High in Redmond. Felton signed up for Cascades Commitment during the 2015-16 year and taught college-level courses for the first time this past year. For her, the overlay with faculty was huge. "There was a genuine interest in one another's respective courses, a mutual respect for our craft as teachers, and a desire to improve writing composition throughout our area through discourse and collaboration," she says.

This is what Paul Andrews, superintendent of the High Desert Education Service District (HDESD), likes to hear. Andrews was at that original educator's meeting that served as the catalyst for Cascades Commitment; he's helped oversee it since then. And on the business end of things, HDESD has served as the grant's fiscal agent.

"We have over 60 teachers who have gone through the summer training and PLC process," he shares. "Not all of those teachers now teach dual-credit classes, but many do. More importantly, the improvement of the craft of all our teachers and instructors, as a result of this work together, has had a powerful impact on the learning of all of our students."

Felton sees a shift in her students and herself. "Many of my students boasted that they actually completed a 10-page paper," she says, "something that they thought would be impossible. I have changed my approach now, and rather than focusing on the diploma, I focus on the importance of writing and showing students how these skills will help them be more successful in college."

The Power of Partnerships

Cascades Commitment is focused on opening doors for students. But it has also opened many minds in the process. "I think that the unique aspect for us, says Hamlin, "is the extent to which mutual respect and support has developed among high school and college faculty in Central Oregon."

And this byproduct of the program has inspired additional collaborations. "There have been some presentations done, jointly, with our faculty and high school instructors in writing at national conferences," says Newby. "They just did one at the Conference on College Composition and Communication."

The partnerships continue to expand. An offshoot of the PLCs is a new workshop series called "Conversations," which brings college faculty and high school instructors together to engage in talks about curriculum, and how a shared, aligned curriculum can translate to student success. COCC did three of them this year—they went so well, a proposal is underway to repeat the series.

What began almost five years ago as an open conversation on regional learning, is now a honed program that's gaining momentum and creating an educational ripple effect. Felton, thrilled with how Cascades Commitment has impacted her students, sums it up this way: "I look forward to hearing from them next year about their successes as college writers."

COCC Cascades Commitment Partners 
High Schools: Bend, Crook, Culver, La Pine, Madras, Mountain View, Redmond, Ridgeview, Sisters and Summit, and the Redmond Proficiency Academy, a public charter. 
Partners: the High Desert Education Service District and OSU-Cascades.

Written by Mark R. Johnson, COCC College Relations

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