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Project LAUNCH Begins with “L” for Learning
When the California State University–Sacramento (Sacramento State) team selected Project LAUNCH (Learning to Advance Underserved Communities in Higher Ed) as the name for its project with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), little did we know how appropriate the name would become. Sacramento State’s project, as well as the national AAC&U project, Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: Campus-Based Strategies for Student Success, involve some of the same challenges as a NASA space launch. A launch occurs at the start of a journey that will require constant vigilance and may include course corrections. However, long before the launch itself occurs—be it a space or project launch—such a journey is preceded by careful planning.
Project LAUNCH is closely aligned with campus and California State University (CSU) system-wide initiatives. CSU has set ambitious goals for increasing four-year graduation rates by 2025 while at the same time reducing the achievement gaps for Pell-eligible and underrepresented minorities to zero. At Sacramento State, President Robert S. Nelsen has also articulated “imperatives,” including student success and diversity and equity, and has committed resources to achieving these goals.
Faculty Learning in Communities
Faculty and curricular development are the key to faculty engagement in student success initiatives aimed at reducing the equity gap and attaining learning outcomes. To that end, Sacramento State has effectively adopted the faculty learning community (FLC) or professional learning community (PLC) model. Just as learning communities are a high-impact practice for student success, an FLC provides optimal conditions for faculty learning. While Sacramento State’s Center for Teaching and Learning’s 2016 summer institute introduced a large number of faculty to the concepts, strategies, and implications of equity, Project LAUNCH’s PLC, “2016 Equity and Student Success: Inclusive Teaching for Diverse Learners,” offered a structured, year-long syllabus for ongoing and in-depth dialogue that enacted movement from theory to praxis. Educating faculty and staff about factors that limit inclusiveness such as unconscious or implicit bias, microaggressions, stereotype threat, and other obstacles to genuine intercultural communication, as well as the ways in which an institution—through its policies, practices, and curricula—might contribute to inequities, is a first step in an iterative change process.
Institute participants included faculty from education, sociology, philosophy, recreation and leisure studies, government, and the library. While many faculty began the PLC focused on a particular course, they are developing plans of practice applicable to most of their courses. One common approach that emerged is the establishment of rules of interaction to increase inclusive participation and productive engagement in classroom activities. Other faculty members identified gaps in curriculum; one, for example, is adapting “Introduction to Inclusive Recreation and Recreation Therapy” to serve general education learning outcomes. Pre- and post-institute surveys also assist us in assessing attitudinal and cultural shifts on issues related to equity.
Faculty Learning Through Assessment
Assuring both access and success for our highly diverse student population requires yet another kind of learning for faculty: ongoing quantitative and qualitative curricular, pedagogical, and programmatic assessment. Indeed, if we are to move beyond the “launch” phase and towards a sustainable and strategic transformation of the institution, we need to set up continuous feedback loops to help us improve. In response to our Project LAUNCH action plan, as well as our Developing Hispanic Serving Institution federal grant action plan, constituents across campus will also need to learn and practice effective analysis and deployment of disaggregated data regarding racial, ethnic, and economic factors.
Two gateway courses, Criminal Justice 1 and Psychology 2, were funded through Project LAUNCH to provide targeted interventions. These courses were chosen from the areas identified in the project plan because we had already established a comparison group with sections of the same courses in our first-year program learning communities, and we had full commitment from the departments to implement and assess the interventions. While coordination of university and department-level programs can be challenging, the faculty and peer tutors in both courses expressed a high level of engagement in the intervention and its assessment. Project LAUNCH participant Marlyn J. Jones, a professor in the Division of Criminal Justice, illustrates this point:
Last semester, the professors teaching the classes we identified for participation in Project LAUNCH reiterated the importance of tutoring support to students identified from early assessments as being at risk of failing the course. Project LAUNCH, with its intended soft touch, serves the purpose of directly helping students. Simultaneously it facilitates data collection to assist in more systematic assessment to develop treatment of the problem identified through the data.
Are Our Students Learning?
Are high-impact practices leading to the achievement of our baccalaureate learning goals? To answer that question, Project LAUNCH supports the development of learning outcomes assessment for first-year seminars and Writing Partners @ Sac State, a program of the Community Engagement Center. Project LAUNCH developed a first-year experience rubric, adapted from the AAC&U Value rubrics, to capture expectations for first-time students that include four foundational learning goals: lifelong learning, integrative thinking, intercultural competence, and information literacy. The initial review prompted the creation of a signature assignment aligned with the goals. Writing Partners @ Sac State pairs first-year students with fifth-grade students in local schools and culminates with a guided visit to Sacramento State. In addition to emphasizing rhetorical writing goals, the end-of-program reflection asks students, “What do you now understand about your participation in this activity as having an impact on young people in their community?” Both programs are currently analyzing data from their first sampling of assignments.
The goals of Project LAUNCH cannot be attained in isolation from our institutional goals or independent of other equity and student success efforts. The future of our campus action plan will depend on collaboration across divisions and into departments. To better serve the educational needs of our underserved students and to close achievement gaps, we need to educate ourselves. Real change begins with ourselves and our practices.
Project LAUNCH reflects the efforts and support of a large team of faculty, staff, and administrators, including members of the AAC&U Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project team: Janet Hecsch, Reza Peigahi, Joel Schwartz, Tina Jordan, Bridget Parsh, Todd Migliaccio, and Dana Kivel. I am both professionally and personally grateful to them and to AAC&U leadership for their commitment to students and to the values that we share.
Sheree L. Meyer, Interim Dean, College of Arts and Letters; Professor of English, California State University–Sacramento