(This article was written by Steven Frasher, Communications Consultant for the Completion Counts partnership on January 9, 2014.)
Completion Counts enters 2014 entirely on its own, now supported by the local commitment of its partners. Far from fading or faltering, Completion Counts is on firm footing and making a real difference in the lives of thousands of Riverside students.
“We want our students to complete two-year degrees, four-year degrees, certificate programs,” said Mayor Rusty Bailey, speaking for the Completion Counts partnership in a recent video update just posted to the City’s GTV and YouTube. “We’ve made a real concerted effort setting them up for success.”
City of Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey speaking at a student-centered Press Conference on Completion Counts help in December, 2013 in City Hall.
The Completion Counts initiative was launched with a great deal of fanfare in 2010 when the national League of Cities announced that Riverside was one of four cities nationwide to receive a three-year $3 million Communities Learning in Partnership (CLIP) grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Together with New York City, San Francisco and Mesa, Arizona, Riverside was challenged to treat postsecondary education as a workforce development imperative. Cities and their public education institutions worked to raise their college completion rates.
Then-mayor Ron Loveridge gladly accepted the charge and brought executive focus to the challenges at hand. The initiative, several partners have claimed, forged “the new way we do business” in Riverside.
The partners are the City of Riverside, Alvord Unified School District, Riverside Unified School District, Riverside City College, Riverside County of Office of Education, University of California, Riverside and the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce.
“The name, ‘Completion Counts,’ is intentional,” said Dr. Wendel Tucker, a former superintendent at Alvord Unified School District, who did consulting for the partnership. “Our expectation is that you will complete college. We will help you to succeed – to have a vibrant economy, here, in Riverside.”
Three years later, not only the mayor but the school superintendents, chancellors and community college president, are all new faces but the commitment remains.
“We’ve been at the table since Day One,” said Cindy Roth, President of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce, to a group of student reporters, in December. “It’s for your benefit and our benefit. We can’t attract jobs without the workforce. Employers look at education.”
Roth pulled no punches reminding listeners why Riverside benefitted. Any entity assessing strengths and challenges of the Inland region found local advantages offset by a low rate of college completion and university degrees among regional residents. Up to 93% of current jobs require some sort of postsecondary education, she said.
Postsecondary education can include college and university, as well as career certificate programs.
Industries attracted to Riverside – including technology, medical, advanced manufacturing and logistics – all require mastery of core classes, called the A-G sequence, demanded of the University of California and California State University systems, for entrance.
“You need a college degree to get in to today’s job market. Things have changed. Times have changed,” Roth said. “The jobs will go elsewhere if we’ don’t have the labor market.”
Dr. Imran Farooq, a member of the California Workforce Development Board, told students that the Riverside – Inland region is poised for tremendous period of growth.
“There are a growing number of consumers demanding products and services,” Farooq said. The region needs a qualified workforce and innovative entrepreneurs, and students need to know they have the support and commitment of their community.
“We’re here to help you,” Mayor Bailey told the students.
Educational attainment is so important that Completion Counts is embedded in Seizing Our Destiny, the City’s strategic action plan.
“It takes a team. We’ve set students up for success, but we need students to take advantage of the opportunities in front of you,” said Bailey, who was himself a high school teacher prior to becoming mayor in 2012.
Many of Riverside’s families have never sent anyone to college. The partnership especially targeted low income and first generation college-goers. Completion Counts created the College311.org website as a comprehensive source of free and authoritative information about financial aid, college and university applications, and other helpful information.
Counselors received additional training and met with their college counterparts. Math and English teachers and instructors met to compare curricula and now those same lessons and partnerships are being applied to teaching Career Technical Education (CTE) courses in city high schools and at RCC.
“Completion Counts has been an investment in alignment,” said Dr. Rick Miller, the former superintendent of Riverside USD.
Grant funds paid to bring together high school teachers from both school districts with college professors. Both sides realized they didn’t really know what to expect from the other. High school math and English courses were adjusted to align with college-level expectations.
Foundation-granted funds also paid for assessments of each school district, their course offerings and college-going rates, in processes guided by consultants from Oakland-based The Education Trust-West.
School districts have placed greater emphasis on the core A-G curriculum demanded by universities, which is more rigorous than classes required simply for high school graduation or for entrance to a community college. Still, even the college finds that too many students step into postsecondary classes unprepared for what’s expected of them.
School districts have changed how they schedule and deliver classes to better serve students.
“It’s been a change in culture,” said interim RUSD Superintendent Mike Fine. The goal isn’t just getting to high school graduation. “The focus goes beyond that – to the next two years, the next four years.”
The success of alignment means fewer students have to spend valuable time and money taking remedial courses at RCC; it also increases the chances of student success in college, said Dr. Wolde-Ab Isaac, the interim President of Riverside City College.
As Mayor Bailey put it, “You have to make your senior year valuable” in terms of continuing to take care classes and keeping math and English skills fresh, going into college. “It’s money in your pockets.”
Community colleges are shifting emphasis from just ‘access’ to ‘success,” Isaac said.
In a Riverside-San Bernardino region with one of the lowest college-going rates in the state, post-secondary education is no longer optional, added Dr. Edward Bush, Vice President of Student Affairs at Riverside City College. Area students can’t think that college is not for them, he said. Some sort of postsecondary training is necessary for everyone.
“When students are told they’re not college material, they stop aspiring toward college,” Bush said. The result, then, is students unprepared for college when they realize they really have to go. Students are then stuck repeating courses they could have completed in high school.
One of the paths Completion Counts put into motion is the RCC 2-Year Completion Contract, announced in May 2012. The offer is made available to any Alvord or Riverside unified school district graduating senior who is prepared for full-time college-level work.
“If you meet the [math and English] requirements, we will guarantee that you will have access to classes with the support you need to be able to graduate in two years,” Bush said. At present, fewer than 4% of California community college students are able to earn enough credits to graduate in just two years.
There are currently more than 500 students enrolled in Riverside’s 2-Year Completion Contract, with more than 200 of the first cohort poised to graduate this spring.
Higher education is necessary, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition. There are multiple pathways to postsecondary success. Students and their families must actively seek out their options, the Mayor said, but the opportunities are there.
Educational and professional pathways are so important that educators look hard to find the best fit for students, said Dr. LaRae Lundgren, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment at the University of California, Riverside. “We’ve tried to make those pathways shine a little brighter.”
Completing the official FAFSA federal financial aid application is an important first step for preparation, regardless of a student’s plans for their family’s financial means. There are often more financial resources available to students than they expect, Lundgren said.
Cash for College workshops, which are open to any student of any high school, are being presented at several Riverside schools between January and March. Complete schedules will be posted to the College311.org website.
The Welcome Center, on the RCC campus, is another option available for all students to learn about their college and university, regardless of where the student wants to attend.
Completion Counts “is a game changer,” said Alvord Unified Superintendent Dr. Sid Salazar. Meaningful education means positions, jobs for our students, once they graduate from high school and college.”