This was a real game-changer
WATERLOO - Turning one’s life around isn’t that easy when you’ve had past run-ins with the law. With a felony in his past and no high school diploma, Kirk Howard had many doors closed in his face.
“I found myself looking at my life and seeing that I wasn’t getting any younger,” Howard said. “But after my trouble with the law, it was a lot harder to go out and get a job. It just wasn’t that easy.”
Howard decided he needed a high school diploma and made a decision in 2015 that would forever change his life, boost his confidence, and restore faith in himself and humanity. He walked through the doors of Hawkeye Community College’s Metro Center with the intention of working on his high school equivalency diploma (HSED), but ended up with a whole lot more.
Call it luck, serendipity, or fate – Howard’s timing happened to coincide with a new pilot program at Hawkeye called I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training). A national co-teaching education model out of the state of Washington, I-BEST delivers adult basic education and support concurrently with college-level coursework in industry-specific pathways.
Hawkeye was piloting I-BEST in Computer Numerical Control (CNC) a program that teaches the automation of machine tools by means of computers executing pre-programmed sequences of machine and control commands. Hawkeye chose CNC as its first I-BEST program partly because of its past success with a grant to help more minorities enter manufacturing careers, and also because of the strong manufacturing industry in the Waterloo area. The program would allow Howard and others to work on a high school equivalency diploma or learn the English language while simultaneously earning college credits and a CNC certificate.
“I thought since I am here for a high school equivalency diploma, I might as well do the other and learn a trade, too,” Howard said.
The implementation of the I-BEST system at Hawkeye didn’t happen overnight. As early as 2009, Sandy Jensen, director of urban centers and adult literacy at Hawkeye Community College, started hearing more about I-BEST at state conferences and reading articles in scholarly journals. She even visited a community college in Minnesota using I-BEST in its Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program to see the model in action. She tested I-BEST theories on a small scale when Hawkeye Community College became involved in a federal Department of Transportation grant to help women and minorities earn certificates in road construction. With the proper support and resources, Jensen was sure the program could help more adult learners gain marketable skills and credentials.
After trying out some of the I-BEST concepts, and the co-teaching model in particular, we knew it was a good model,” Jensen said.
“Students in the road construction class indicated that they wouldn’t have made it without the extra support of the adult education and literacy (AEL) teacher. And they all found good jobs after completing the program,” Jensen said. “But at the time, we just didn’t have the resources to implement I-BEST on a larger scale.”
But that soon changed.
In 2013, the Iowa Legislature included a line item for adult education and literacy programs in the state budget. It provided a whole new funding stream. And in 2014, the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was passed to strengthen and improve the nation's public workforce system and help Americans, including youth and those with significant barriers to employment, earn marketable credentials to secure high-quality jobs and careers and help employers hire and retain skilled workers. The law requires states to seamlessly deliver integrated job-driven services, including postsecondary education and training.
With funding in place, Jensen started talking more seriously about the I-BEST model with administrators at the college, including Jane Bradley, provost and vice president of academic affairs.
“Many of the students in our adult education programs are there because our traditional education system just didn’t work for them,” Bradley said.
“I was disappointed in the percent of our adult education and English language learners (ELL) who matriculated into college programs,” Bradley said. “By our best estimates, it was very low, only in the single digits. I knew we needed to do something different to turn this around.”
In Iowa, nearly 18,000 students are served each year through adult education and literacy programs. Jensen’s evidence, research and case studies indicated that the I-BEST model could increase postsecondary credential attainment, particularly among workers with low basic skills and English language learners.
“We saw how the students in an I-BEST setting were still learning core content, but now it was contextualized,” Bradley said. “They were doing all the things we teach in a traditional adult education classroom, but now it was in a context that was meaningful to them.”
Bradley, Jensen, Hawkeye’s dean of applied sciences and engineering technology and one of the college’s CNC instructors made a trip to Washington state to learn more about the program and how to implement it.
“The trip helped us think through implementation and ways to make it work,” Bradley said.
“Our high school completion and ELL programs are grouped on the non-credit side and Hawkeye Community College uses different student management systems for credit and non-credit programs,” she said. “We needed to find a way to get these students in the system as credit students.”
Their solution was to treat the I-BEST students in a manner similar to concurrent enrollment students who earn college credit while in high school. They could admit the I-BEST students as guest students, which would enable them to more easily track success.
“If you think about it, many of these students are working on a high school diploma, so they should have options for college credit in the same way that a traditional high school student does,” Bradley said.
They also had to determine things like scheduling and contact hours. It took a lot of going back and forth with faculty and administration to ensure the right number of course hours were in place and all instructors had the required credentials. They determined how to manage funding streams in order to waive tuition for I-BEST students. Once these issues were worked out, Bradley and Jensen really started to get excited.
A core component of the I-BEST approach is the collaboration between the technical instructors and the adult education instructors in an effort to integrate the basic skills student competencies with those taught in the technical program. By working together to develop and deliver curriculum customized to students’ needs, traditionally underserved and academically challenged populations are better able to succeed in the classroom and in the workforce.
“We have amazing, dedicated instructors who want to give back to students and the community,” Bradley said. “We refer to them as our Dream Team.”
Funding from the legislative line item enabled Hawkeye to hire two full-time staff to serve as the adult basic education instructors for I-BEST programs. Jennette Shepard was hired to work primarily with high school completion students and Lucas Plouff with ELL students. Both are passionate about helping adult learners succeed.
“One of the most important things to keep in mind in a co-teaching model is that you have to set your own teacher-ego aside,” Shepard said. “Collaborating with your partner instructor requires a time commitment, but you do it for the students.”
Robert Mosley, I-BEST CNC instructor with over 30 years of machining experience with John Deere, agrees that a foundation of trust and camaraderie among co-instructors is a key factor to success.
“We have to take stock in what our class needs and every single class is different,” Mosley said. “As I-BEST co-instructors, we have to sit down weekly, sometimes daily, to tailor and adjust the curriculum. Sometimes it is just explaining things in a way that is different than they heard before.”
Unlike traditional adult education classes where high school equivalency students take separate classes from those learning English as a second language, Hawkeye’s I-BEST programs combine them together.
“In our classroom, our adult basic education and ELL students work together,” Plouff said. “We encourage the team aspect and they work together to help each other to succeed. There is a lot of learning that happens between the two populations.”
Bradley agrees that combining ELL and adult basic education students together in I-BEST programs have had unforeseen benefits.
“With a blended class, our high school equivalency students are exposed to a level of diversity they may not have experienced before,” Bradley said. “And the work ethic of many of our ELL students has a great impact on the high school equivalency students. It’s a win-win.”
After the success of the CNC pilot in 2015, Hawkeye Community College added a second CNC I-BEST class and started a new Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) I-BEST class in 2016. This year, Hawkeye ran CNA and CNC I-BEST classes simultaneously for the first time.
Since the start of the program, a total of 72 participants enrolled in one of the I-BEST programs spanning five separate semesters. Of those students, 86 percent successfully completed the program, 27 percent are continuing their education at Hawkeye Community College, and 32 percent either got a new job or earned a promotion at a current job. An impressive 74 percent of the CNA I-BEST students passed the state’s CNA exam.
Successes like these are integral to the Future Ready Iowa initiative, which calls for 70 percent of Iowans to have education or training beyond high school by 2025 to ensure Iowa’s workforce is equipped with the skills and education employers need. The initiative specifically identifies the need for an additional 51,300 credentials earned by adults 25 and older with no prior postsecondary education to meet this goal.
For its part, Hawkeye plans to add additional I-BEST programs in the future. They have already planned curriculum for a computer science-related I-BEST program to be implemented in the coming months.
Recently passed state legislation to expand ways for Iowans to earn a high school equivalency diploma will also make a big difference for future I-BEST students. Previously, there was only one path to earning an equivalency diploma – passing the HiSET exam.
Some former students who completed I-BEST programs found their lack of a high school diploma a barrier to employment even though they had earned college credit and industry credentials. With a statewide taskforce reviewing possible pathways and determining alternative options for earning a high school equivalency diploma, future students will have more options for demonstrating competency.
For the students, the I-BEST program is truly life-changing. With hard work, perseverance, and support of all his instructors, Kirk Howard graduated with his HSED in June and holds five college credit hours of CNC machining coursework.
“I wouldn’t say this was easy,” Howard said. “If my I-BEST instructors didn’t work with me the way they did I wouldn’t have made it. I wouldn’t have realized my own potential and ability to learn.
“I could actually feel my brain grow – it was throbbing. But by the end of the day I would be ‘oh, I got it!’ Every day I learned more than the previous day and I realized I could do it, that I did belong in college, and now I can see where my future can go.”
Integrated Content – Students earn college credit by completing coursework in a career pathway while receiving basic skills instruction in reading, math, and English language acquisition, which is integrated into the course content.
Co-Teaching – A content area instructor and a basic skills instructor co-teach the classes together. They work together to develop and deliver integrated outcomes, curriculum, and assessments.
Streamlined Pathway – Integrating adult basic education with college-level coursework addresses the needs of adult learners to obtain workplace skills and compresses the time to completion. Traditionally, students would have to complete adult basic education and English language acquisition programs prior to enrolling in college-level coursework.
The Dream Team’s Tips for a Successful I-BEST Program
- Support from the highest levels of college administration is integral to success.
- It takes a lot of up front time and planning. Be committed and have your resources in place before you start the program.
- Selecting the right co-instructors is key to success. They have to be flexible and committed to co-teaching. I-BEST won’t work if both instructors are set in their own ways.
- Don’t enroll too many students in one class. The intensity and level of support provided requires a low student-to-faculty ratio. (Hawkeye is still trying to determine the ideal ratio.)
- Only enroll students who show interest and whose knowledge base is such that they won’t be overwhelmed with new content. If you enroll students too early, the program will be beyond their current capabilities and they give up.
- Recognize that success requires all departments and administration to be on the same page. It takes intensive communication.
- Always remember that the students come first.