Collaborating to Help New Americans Succeed in Community College: An Example from Minnesota

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, May 05, 2016

What happens when a nonprofit organization learns that its immigrant graduates are struggling to pass required courses in their program of study at the local community college? For one Minnesota organization, the answer included: Work with the college to design and implement robust transitional supports.

In this post, we take a look at an innovative partnership between the International Institute of Minnesota and Saint Paul College.

About the Partner Organizations

Founded nearly 100 years ago, the nonprofit International Institute of Minnesota (IIM) serves approximately 3,000 immigrants and refugees each year via refugee resettlement, education and workforce training, and other services. For the past twenty years, those offerings have included a Medical Careers Pathway program to prepare immigrants for entry-level healthcare positions.

The nearby Saint Paul College (SPC) is a two-year community and technical college. Since its inception in 1910, SPC has served urban residents, underrepresented students and immigrants new to the city. Today, students of color comprise 61% of SPC’s overall enrollment, and an estimated 40% of all students are New Americans.

The Challenge

Immigrants who graduate from the Certified Nurse Assistant programs at IIM or Saint Paul College are often interested in continuing their education in the college’s Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) program. Achieving the LPN credential will allow them to advance their careers and increase their earning power.

Yet despite this keen interest from participants, the partner organizations found that many prospective LPN students were struggling to succeed in prerequisite classes and/or were unprepared for the required Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) entrance examination. Discouraged, some left the college before even beginning their LPN studies.

The Intervention

To better prepare participants for the transition from IIM’s Medical Careers Pathway program to the credit-bearing healthcare programs at SPC, the partners identified two interventions they wanted to pursue:

  • Provide an effective TEAS test preparation course.
  • Implement bridge and support classes for the LPN prerequisite courses at Saint Paul College, with a particular emphasis on classes that have been a barrier to immigrant students’ success: biology and psychology.

Bridge classes
are defined as a 3-4 week pre-class provided to participants before they start a college-level class.

Support classes are held in conjunction with regular subject-area classes in topics such as biology or psychology. They are hour-long classes held just after the subject-area class, during which participants can go over the material that was covered that day in the earlier class.

The Results

The first TEAS prep class was offered in Fall 2015. Twenty-eight students, three-quarters of whom were immigrants, participated. The class met 13 times during the semester, for three hours per session.

Comparison of students’ TEAS test scores pre-and post-class showed a marked improvement following their participation in the prep class. Results were particularly strong in science, where the overall average score rose from 35% to 63%. Two-thirds of students who submitted their TEAS exam scores to the IIM team were admitted to the Licensed Practical Nurse program. 

The bridge and support classes have been even more successful, with students enthusiastically asking if similar resources are available for other subject-area classes. The success doesn’t come as a surprise to IIM Executive Director Jane Graupman: It’s consistent with IIM’s previous organizational learning. “[Years ago] we found that our students were struggling with the human-body systems class – it’s a gateway to any medical job you want. Our students were either failing it or getting a C,” she explains. “We got [state] funding from Minnesota’s FAST-TRAC to do a bridge class to human-body systems, and then to do a support class afterward. Every single student who went to the bridge and support class got an A or a B in the [regular] class.”

Intriguingly, it is not just immigrant students who see the value in bridge and support classes. “We also have American-born students who participate,” says Graupman. “They tell us they could not have passed without them.”

The Learning: Key Determinants of Success

Several factors have been particularly relevant to the success of the partners’ efforts. They include:

  • Prioritizing the navigator role. “IIM has always had a navigator” as part of its programs, says Graupman. Helping participants to navigate educational options, find support for life issues, and obtain employment have all been key navigator responsibilities. In IIM’s partnership with Saint Paul College, helping students to figure out course sequencing and financial aid has been crucial to fostering their success.  “We know that when people get in to hard classes, they have to scale back on their working hours so they can concentrate on their studies,” explains Graupman. “So it’s especially important that navigators can help them access scholarships to support them as they study.”
  • Leadership buy-in. The President of Saint Paul College is himself an immigrant, and a strong supporter of the College’s partnership with IIM, says Graupman. “He totally gets it, he knows what we do and why it’s important. But it’s not just upper management,” she clarifies. “I got to do a keynote address to the whole college. That was vital.” Embarking on this type of partnership with a nonprofit community-based organization was a significant step for the College, she says, and it was important that staffers at all levels understood the impetus. “We’re both serving New Americans, but our organizations have distinct areas of expertise and experience,” she explains.
  • Institutional expertise. Here, Graupman’s own history at IIM played a role. As a young staff member, she pioneered the agency’s first contextualized healthcare education program more than two decades ago.  By the time the partnership with Saint Paul College came to be, IIM had a long history of successfully iterating effective program models. “In the nonprofit world, we love pedagogy,” says Graupman. “We’re always tinkering with it – are my students getting it? Do I need to change things?”
  • Enlightened self-interest. Getting partners to the table isn’t just about having a common sense of mission, collective organizational priorities, or even shared students.  Potential partners often need to see how collaboration can help them meet requirements or mandates they already face. In this case, student retention was a compelling factor for the College, says Graupman. “They were already focused on how to help students persist and graduate successfully, and we were able to make the case for how our partnership could help improve retention rates.”

The Next Steps

The partners are already exploring ways to deepen and extend their collaboration, including via:

Adding additional classes: IIM staff are now talking to Saint Paul College staff about developing bridge and support classes for other subject areas where immigrant students may face challenges, including dosing and English composition.

Strengthening departmental connections: The IIM team is also working to build on Graupman’s earlier keynote address to ensure that each of SPC’s relevant departments are familiar with the partnership. “Just this week, we sat down with the nursing department to explain what we’re doing with the College,” says Graupman. “It can be hard in a big institution, because sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.” While such focused outreach can be time-consuming, the payoff is significant as additional College staff members become familiar with and enthusiastic about the partnership.

Building new connections:  In 2015, Graupman was invited to join the board of the Friends of Saint Paul College Foundation. Her new role further solidifies the connections between SPC and IIM.

Enabling datasharing: “We’re talking about how to have a data-sharing agreement that protects students’ privacy,” says Graupman. “We want to be able to follow our students and see how they do over the long term,” after they graduate from IIM’s services. “The data piece is important,” she adds, “I would recommend that anybody who is contemplating a project like this think through what data they’re going to want to have access to, and get the agreements in place.”

Read more about the IIM-SPC partnership.

The IIM-SPC collaboration was supported in part via the Building Community Partnerships to Serve Immigrant Workers (BCPIW) initiative, convened by the National Council for Workforce Education and funded by the Ford Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Previous posts on the Skills Blog highlighted BCPIW programs in Pasadena (CA) and Westchester (NY).

*Photo courtesy of International Institute of Minnesota