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Austin Community College honored for innovation


ACC President and CEO Richard Rhodes now serves on the League for Innovation in the Community College.

A lab with more than 600 computers at the Highland campus impressed officials of the league.

For community colleges, few honors match getting a seat on the board of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

The prestigious association, founded in 1968, limits its board of directors to 20 members. A college can’t apply for a seat; rather, it must be nominated when a vacancy occurs. Then it must submit a detailed “self-study” to make its case, host a site visit by league officials and be approved by a vote of the board.

And so it went for Austin Community College, which learned last month that Richard Rhodes, its president and CEO, had won a seat on the league’s board on the strength of his leadership, ACC’s Board of Trustees, the faculty and various innovations, including the conversion of the rundown Highland Mall into a campus featuring, among other things, a lab with more than 600 computers where students learn at their own pace.

“It puts ACC in that group of significant leading community colleges helping to chart the course for new innovations, particularly in today’s age of (emphasizing) student success,” said Mark Milliron, a former CEO of the league who co-founded Austin-based Civitas Learning Inc., which works with ACC and many other colleges to reduce the time and cost of earning a degree. “It’s a great honor for Austin to be recognized by this group. It’s also a great network to be a part of. You have your finger on some of most innovative practices around the country and even around the world.”

Board membership will allow ACC to tap into various grants that the League for Innovation receives. In the run-up to board membership, the league cut ACC in on a $2.9 million grant from the Walmart Foundation. The college received $300,000 to offer classes for a retail management certificate that will help workers rise into supervisory roles.

Membership on the league’s board also acknowledges Rhodes’ national stature, said Evelyn Waiwaiole, executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas. “Richard is considered to be one of the great community college leaders,” she said, citing his work at ACC and previously at El Paso Community College. “He is extremely well respected.”

Rhodes said ACC officials acknowledged to league representatives during the review process that much needs to be done to increase graduation rates, boost transfers to four-year universities and otherwise raise measures of student success.

“You have to talk about your warts to talk about the innovations to overcome those warts,” Rhodes said.

For example, the three-year-graduation rate for ACC students who enrolled full-time in 2012 was 3.8 percent, well below the statewide average of 15.4 percent, according to Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board data. ACC officials say the school historically focused on getting students in the door, as opposed to their academic progress after enrolling.

That is changing. The college has grouped 180 degree and certificate programs into 10 “guided pathways,” such as business, health sciences and liberal arts, to make it easier for students to complete required courses and stay on track. Advising and other support services are being beefed up. Course completion rates are on the rise.

League officials were impressed not only by such efforts but also by ACC’s collaboration with high schools, its workforce development programs and its deep engagement with the community, said Rufus Glasper, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization, which is based in Chandler, Ariz.

Glasper said he was unaware of any other college in the country with a computer lab akin to the ACCelerator, as the lab at the Highland campus is called. The lab’s size creates an environment where students who need help don’t feel that they are being singled out, he said. Students who take developmental, or remedial, math in the lab have much higher passing rates than their counterparts in traditional classrooms.

“You’ll see that being replicated around the country,” Glasper predicted.

League officials were also taken with ACC’s partnership with the business community to bring a bioscience lab, incubator space, apartments, shops and offices to the Highland site. “It’s a good example of building an ecosystem that allows a community college to serve as a base for revitalizing the community,” Glasper said.

A seat on the league’s board isn’t necessarily permanent. When a college’s chief executive retires or otherwise departs, the school must undergo a new review to retain the seat. And if a college’s CEO or board strays from a commitment to innovation, it can be stripped of its seat, Glasper said.

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