“They Said”: The ASPIRE Project

Women Employed
She Says

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April is National Community College Month, and here at Women Employed, we are proud of the partnerships we have forged with 10 Illinois community colleges through our Accelerating Student Progress and Increasing Racial Equity (ASPIRE) Project. The ASPIRE Project aims to: (1) accelerate students’ progress through remedial education; (2) increase racial equity and inclusion; (3) provide opportunities for colleges to learn from one another, and (4) use what we collectively learn to inform the field and inform Women Employed’s policy agenda.

Since its inception in March of 2021, the ASPIRE Project has not just identified what supports colleges need for advancing improvements in remedial education, but thanks to a multiyear grant from the ECMC Foundation, has been extended to improve developmental education in Illinois by providing resources to develop and test innovative strategies that determine college readiness, place more students directly into credit-bearing courses, and support their academic progress. WE are even launching a Racial Equity Academy this year and will be hosting an ASPIRE Developmental Education Symposium in the Spring of 2025.

In this month’s special edition of “She Says,” which we are calling, “They Said,” we talk with three of our ASPIRE Project partners―Torria Norman, Chair, English, Reading & Communication, Black Hawk College; Lonetta M. Oliver, Dean of Humanities, Illinois Central College; and Jessica Moreno, Dean for Academic Support, Waubonsee Community College―on how the ASPIRE Project is helping serve their students better, what challenges the ASPIRE Project is helping to address, and the most valuable aspect of their partnership with Women Employed.

Tell me about the students you serve.

Torria Norman (TN): At Black Hawk College, I have the privilege of serving a diverse and dynamic group of students, each with unique backgrounds, goals, and life circumstances. Our student community is a rich tapestry, encompassing recent high school graduates, ambitious professionals seeking career advancement or retraining, international learners, and individuals returning to education after a break.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my role is witnessing the varied academic journeys of our students. Some arrive directly from high school, eager to embark on their college experience, while others benefit from foundational coursework to strengthen essential skills before tackling higher-level studies. This is where our corequisite model truly shines, providing tailored support to ensure every student can thrive and succeed in his or her educational pursuits.

Lonetta Oliver (LO): The students we serve are members of our community who come from all walks of life. They are employees seeking credentials so that they qualify for advancement, newly graduated young people who are continuing their educational paths, and returning citizens who want to increase the number of options they have and improve the quality of those options. The majority of the students who are placed into developmental courses have either been out of the educational system long enough to have forgotten what they need to place into college-level courses, or they did not receive what they needed previously to be successful in college courses. They are disproportionately students of color and/or who come from impoverished backgrounds, so they are frequently the students who do not receive the support or level of instruction they need to thrive.

Jessica Moreno (JM): Our developmental education program caters to a diverse range of students. This includes recent high school graduates, adults returning to education, and those transitioning from non-traditional educational paths. Many of these students encounter challenges such as academic skill gaps, learning disabilities, or socio-economic barriers that have impacted their educational journey. It’s important to note the breadth of our student body, which spans across different ethnicities, including Hispanic/Latinx, Black/African American, and White students, among others. Additionally, we serve students with various needs, such as English language learners, ensuring inclusivity and equity in our program.

Most importantly, we serve students with hopes, aspirations, and goals.

How is the ASPIRE Project helping you serve students better?

TN: The ASPIRE Project, a collaboration with Women Employed, has been remarkable. At Black Hawk College, the corequisite model is key to boosting student success. This model pairs students needing extra support with remedial coursework alongside their regular classes. It’s all about proactive, personalized help that integrates learning and boosts success rates and retention. Our focus is on student-centered education, ensuring everyone can reach their academic goals. Learning from other colleges is valuable, and sharing our experiences is essential. Implementing the corequisite isn’t one-size-fits-all. We fully launched in the fall of 2022 and achieved an impressive 88 percent pass rate.

LO: The ASPIRE Project allows us to address instructional needs and barriers that students face by crafting an asset-based, rather than deficit-based, model of instruction and lesson creation. We want the students we serve to know they belong and that their concerns are included and intentionally woven into the lessons and class policies. This project supports our use of a staff member to have the time necessary to research the most promising practices and purchase the resources necessary for the professional development of faculty who teach developmental courses.

JM: The ASPIRE Project has enabled us to initiate the implementation (pilot) of one of our projects from our Developmental Education Reform Act (DERA) plan, which incorporates a Bridge program designed to accelerate students’ progress through developmental education. This program offers just-in-time remediation and stands out for its integration of essential support services, ranging from counseling to tutoring to academic coaching, all aimed at fostering students’ academic success. This collaborative experience among key academic support areas and faculty in the classroom has allowed us to enhance our student support efforts while complying with the new legislation.

What challenges is the ASPIRE Project helping to address?

TN: The ASPIRE Project collaborates with community colleges to tackle common challenges in higher education settings. Many students entering community colleges need remedial coursework to bridge skill gaps and prepare for college-level work. Traditional remediation can delay degree completion and discourage students from continuing their studies.

The corequisite model provides immediate and concurrent support, allowing students to receive targeted assistance while progressing through credit-bearing courses. This model promotes collaboration among community colleges to improve student outcomes and ensure equitable access to educational opportunities. By sharing insights and working together, institutions can create a more supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students. Monthly ASPIRE meetings help address these challenges and maintain effective corequisite models in higher education.

LO: Our greatest challenge in higher education, but especially in developmental courses, is the “achievement gaps” for African American and Latinx students. While our college has been improving success outcomes for students overall, the gaps in success rates of students of color remain the same. The ASPIRE Project has helped us to address instructional challenges and implicit biases in the classroom so that faculty who typically serve students of color and other minoritized students are provided with proven strategies to better support learners and adjust policies that create unnecessary barriers to student success.

JM: ASPIRE plays a vital role in fulfilling the legislative mandate for institutions to develop strategies that increase students’ enrollment in college-level MTH [math] or ENG [English] courses by their second semester. At a more detailed level, ASPIRE assists us in addressing learning gaps through timely remediation, thereby not only saving students time and money but also accelerating their transition to college-level coursework.

What has been the most valuable aspect of your partnership with Women Employed?

TN: Our partnership with Women Employed has been incredibly valuable, particularly in advancing both the corequisite model and racial justice initiatives.

Women Employed’s involvement has significantly strengthened our implementation of the corequisite model, allowing us to better address the unique challenges and needs of our students. Leveraging their insights and resources, we’ve enhanced support services and tailored academic interventions to promote success for all students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds.

In addition, our collaboration with Women Employed has deepened our engagement in discussions and actions related to race equity and inclusion. The Race Equity Inclusion (REI) Speaker Series has provided valuable opportunities for our community to learn, reflect, and take meaningful steps toward fostering a more equitable environment on campus.

Furthermore, through our partnership with Women Employed and other colleges, we’ve had the chance to network with colleagues facing similar challenges. This networking has been uplifting, allowing us to share experiences, exchange ideas, and encourage each other in navigating obstacles and implementing effective strategies. Building this supportive community of peers has been invaluable in strengthening our efforts and fostering continuous improvement.

Overall, our partnership with Women Employed has expanded our capacity to support and promote racial equity while facilitating meaningful networking and collaboration with colleagues. Together, we’re empowering positive change and building more inclusive and supportive environments within our institutions.

LO: I truly enjoy the monthly meetings and lecture series. The meetings pull us together and remind us that we are not islands; the students we serve at community colleges are wonderful and have a variety of needs, no matter the communities in which they are located. The lecture series provides unique perspectives to challenges that are faced on a national level, and I appreciate the expertise of the speakers Women Employed brings. Not only is this knowledge and mastery valuable beyond measure, but we would NEVER be able to bring all these experts to our college with our meager professional development budgets!

JM: The most valuable aspect of this experience is the sense of community that has emerged. This community has become a hub for invaluable resources and information sharing, fostering connections that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Moreover, the expertise offered by Kathy Almy has proven to be indispensable (not only supporting me but most importantly faculty). Ultimately, I find great satisfaction in our collaborative efforts, as we come together to brainstorm solutions, always with a focus on prioritizing the needs of our students.

What do you hope for your students?

TN: I aspire to see students from diverse backgrounds achieve their academic and career aspirations. I am committed to creating an accessible, flexible, and supportive learning environment that caters to a broad spectrum of student needs and goals.

I strive to ensure that each student, regardless of their background or circumstances, can succeed and thrive. By offering flexibility in learning approaches, personalized support, and access to resources, I aim to empower students to reach their fullest potential and achieve their dreams.

My ultimate goal is to foster an inclusive educational experience where every student feels valued, supported, and equipped to pursue their desired academic and career paths. Together, we work towards building a community where all students can excel and realize their aspirations.

LO: I hope our students achieve everything they want in life and that they remember their classroom and educational experiences at Illinois Central College fondly. I always enjoyed school and would not have made it without the support of teachers who lived in my neighborhood and understood my struggles. I hope our students have no struggles, but I want them to know we are here for them if they do.

JM: I hope our students have an exceptional and enriching academic journey. Yet, above all, my deepest hope is that they acquire the knowledge, courage, and confidence necessary to pursue and achieve any goal or aspiration they have.

How are you going ALL IN for their success?

TN: Going “ALL IN” for student success means immersing myself in the world of education with enthusiasm, empathy, and a touch of humor! After 28 years at Black Hawk College, I still look forward to stepping into the classroom each day — I’m truly living my dream!

Education is a journey that presents both challenges and triumphs. With a positive outlook, a bit of humor, and unwavering dedication, we can turn our students’ academic dreams, goals, and aspirations into reality!

LO: I go ALL IN for student success by serving in as many capacities outside of the classroom as I can in ways that support their learning and growth. I help coordinate student programming that is designed to increase student belonging and encourage inclusive language and experiences for our students across the college. Our most vulnerable students are in the developmental classroom, and they need even more opportunities to grow and learn as members of our college community.

JM: It’s important to acknowledge that going ALL IN for (student) success is only made possible by the dedicated Academic Support faculty and staff who genuinely care about students, and whom I am honored to work alongside. These individuals are continually engaged in a process of continuous improvement, which is what enables us to go all in for their (student) success.

At our institution, we are deeply committed to recognizing the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our students. This recognition is essential because it highlights the importance of understanding that success can be achieved through various avenues, rather than adhering to a one-size-fits-all approach. Therefore, it’s imperative for us to understand the unique populations we serve and to identify the specific strategies they may need to thrive. While exploring these details may seem daunting, it’s essential for addressing disparities and fostering meaningful student success.

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Women Employed
She Says

WE relentlessly pursue equity for women in the workforce by effecting policy change, expanding access to education, & advocating for fair, inclusive workplaces.