Redefining student success through Principled Innovation

By

Meghan Krein

“We weren’t meeting all of our students’ needs,” says Erica Mitchell, executive director, academic services. Mitchell is referring to the former MLFTC retention and engagement team, which comprised a manager and a handful of retention specialists who had a wide range of duties, from housing to student engagement to retention activities to supervision of peer leaders. 

Academic advisors — whose primary role is academic advising — were also being asked to do things like mental health counseling, career counseling and academic support. “I felt like the two teams were trying to be everything to everyone and it wasn’t working,” Mitchell says.

That’s when a lightbulb went on. “I envisioned a model based off of what DeanCarole Basile says about classroom teachers,” Mitchell says. Mitchell is talking about what Basile refers to as a workforce design problem — teachers being all things to all students at all times.

“Many teachers leave because what we are asking them to do is a job that is probably not humanly possible. We put them in a classroom with 30 children and say, you have to know everything that everybody knows,” says Basile. What we need to do is to start building teams around students, she says. "We need to say, here are the children and here is a team of adults who share that responsibility and share expertise," Basile says.  

Mitchell thought this idea applied to her team, too, so one year ago she pitched a new model, which she calls “coordinated care,” and her team ran with it. “We eliminated our retention specialist positions and created new positions focused on areas of expertise,” says Mitchell.

“This is Principled Innovation,” Basile says, “the ability to innovate with a humanist approach. Innovation without a real understanding of the humanity involved can cause unintended consequences. We found that many of our students were struggling with social and emotional concerns, and needed additional support. So we changed our structures.”

Today the Student Success Team, managed by Valerie Shipp, manager of student success, is made up of:

  • Career development coach: Provides individual coaching on all aspects of career planning, such as choosing a major and future career direction. Helps develop such skills as resume and cover letter writing, researching careers in education, finding internships and interviewing effectively.

  • Wellness coach: Provides student support by enhancing holistic wellness, health and academic success through empowering conversations and skill building. Facilitates activities related to mindfulness, resiliency, stress management, conflict resolution and overall well-being. 

  • Academic coaches: A team of two — one to focus on math and the other, writing. Together they provide academic support related to time management, study habits, researching techniques, writing skills and subject-specific tutoring. They also conduct academic workshops and monitor academic progress. 

  • Financial resource coordinator: Offers students and families financial literacy information related to paying for college, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, applying for scholarships, loans, grants and strategies for avoiding debt.

  • Student engagement coordinator: Focuses on student engagement by linking students’ curricular experiences to co-curricular activities. Oversees housing, student clubs and organizations.

The team provides services at each campus so all MLFTC students can utilize their services. “So far, I think we’ve been very successful,” Mitchell says, adding, “Currently, we are focusing on supporting freshmen and students who have a referral from faculty or an academic advisor. And our fall to spring retention has increased 5.6 percent, which is really unheard of.”


Erica Mitchell

Many student referrals come from faculty, and the Student Success Team works together to ask the right questions and to solve the right problem. “This is where I go back to coordinated care,” Mitchell says, “because sometimes it’s not just a math issue, but maybe it’s also an anxiety issue or a financial issue. This new holistic approach allows us to identify what the underlying problem is.”

In cases in which the problem is strictly academic — referrals come from academic status reports or faculty — the academic coach and the advisor connect with the student to see what support they have and what support they need. Of course, some students seek out the SST on their own.

Straight from the team:

Michele Gaines, wellness coach: “The biggest issue I help students with is how to live a healthy, well-balanced, fulfilling life. By nature, many MLFTC students tend to be helpers and altruistic — the first to volunteer for projects, help friends and family — so their struggle tends to be learning how to take time out for themselves and practice self-care.”

This spring Gaines began Wellness Wednesday events. She says the motivation came from a desire to connect to students in an informal setting, while also reaching more students to create a culture of wellness. “Loneliness and social connectedness are huge factors that affect student retention,” says Gaines.

“It has been rewarding to see several students return each week. I’ve also witnessed students forge connections and develop friendships. I’m hoping this continues and faculty and staff will also attend these events.”

Jody Pratt, academic coach: "Typically, a student’s struggle with classes is not the problem, but the symptom of a lack of holistic wellness." And due to the Student Success Team focusing on individual areas of wellness, they're able to address the student as a whole, she says. "This team has allowed us to redefine student success — not just as a certain GPA — but as healthy, functioning, productive adults who have much to contribute to the people they will educate in the future."

Pratt says the largest issue she encounters is a lack of pre-requisite skills. "Students are expected to know a certain amount before taking certain classes. In the past, if students didn’t know what they needed to beforehand, they would often get left behind and had to try and figure things out on their own. Now, they can come to an academic coach to help them fill in the gaps and get up to speed." 

Jennifer Rhodes, career development coach: Rhodes says she sees a lack of career development strategy among many students who major in Educational Studies. “Some students decide to change their major to Educational Studies from a teacher certification program after determining they don’t want to teach, but they don’t have a clear understanding of career pathways for this flexible major.”

“My goal,” she says, “is to bridge this gap through creating programming specifically related to career options for educators and working with faculty to infuse career development into Educational Studies courses.”

Rhodes created a centralized database for students that houses dozens of part-time paid, volunteer and internship opportunities which allow students to develop experience with children and young adults early on in their academic programs.

“One thing I really appreciate about working with MLFTC students is their passion and dedication to helping others,” says Rhodes. “Many students who I work with have said they decided to pursue a career in education because they had an influential teacher or they are carrying on a family legacy of teaching. For example, one student decided that working in the classroom wasn’t a good fit for her, but serving those with disabilities is — she struggled with a disability herself. Her goal is to work with individuals with autism in a nonprofit or higher ed setting, which we are exploring together.”

Jeff Tellin, financial resource coordinator: “I see my role as addressing obstacles thwarting student success, such as limited financial resources and understanding how their current ASU experiences are preparing them for their professional lives.” Throughout the year, Tellin holds many financial aid workshops — for students and parents — including how to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.