The key was that the initiative looked at people in the context of the system. Similarly, the California team used the mapping exercise to look at the contexts in which they were engaging the students they are targeting.
They started with five contexts (and within those, specific touch points) in which students could be supported: through outreach, advising, enrolling, persisting and completing. But during the mapping process, the team realized they needed to look at two more contexts, one on the front end, another on the back. On the front end, they added awareness. “We started mapping out a series of touchpoints to say: “How aware is your institution of rural adult learners? Are they even on the radar?” said Shaw. On the back end of the system, they added employ. “We wanted to have an opportunity to evaluate, if a student comes back as an adult and does succeed, whether the education we gave them actually matched them to the opportunities in our rural communities,” said Shaw. “I mean, we could train 100 HR directors, but if [businesses] are only going to hire six, we have failed.”
Even before the workshop, one of the team members, a collective of community colleges, had been mapping curriculum, determining how well the certifications and credentials now being awarded at the region’s rural schools match in-demand jobs. Moving forward, Shaw said, the team intends to bring the region’s four-year institutions into the same model.
“The CivicLab team gives you so much good stuff in such a short time that it really takes your brain a couple of days to think it all through,” Shaw said. Now that the team members have absorbed the many lessons, they have been building out a template for working through those seven contexts, assessing one context a week. They started by surveying member institutions on how aware they are of adult learners, having them score themselves, document activities and list stakeholders engaged in the work. The team has learned, among other things, that no one defines adult learners the same way. A question that all answered the same way, meanwhile, helpfully revealed a key need.
“We are learning all kinds of things about how we have to operate and function as we are building out our work plan,” says Shaw. “The germ of that was planted in the workshops, and it has blossomed into an actual assessment. We saw how we could take the [CivicLab] system-building approach with our unique problem, and with what we know about adult learners, and build our own tool and work plan.”
The ProjectAttain! guiding team members are also sharing helpful information with other participants in the rural network, particularly the Texas Coastal Bend team, a far smaller region that Shaw says is a leader when it comes to sustainable funding and has a well-functioning adult learner network. On the other hand, Coastal Bend lacks a systems-builder, Shaw says, and has taken lessons from California’s processes and plans. “We share materials back and forth,” says Shaw. “We are also learning from other groups and seeing who they are pulling in to their collective. Seeing who other communities are bringing to the table was definitely inspiring.”
Overall, Shaw says, “The learning has been invaluable for us. We plugged our own things into the blanks in CivicLab’s templates to show people here how it works. We have sort of hybridized the [CivicLab] model. It’s all their principles, and we are definitely on board with this approach to change.”
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