Dr. Tanya Scott is associate director of teaching and learning at Achieving the Dream. In this role she is responsible for managing a range of programs and projects designed to promote teaching and learning excellence across all ATD Network colleges.
Dr. Scott has recently supported Mott Community College (MCC) in Flint, Michigan, through their efforts to build and lead a professional learning community (PLC). MCC was one of four colleges selected to participate in an 18-month project, beginning in summer 2020, to support the creation of regional pathways that contribute to family-sustaining wages in high-paying fields. The PLC initiative and the work of the four participating colleges was supported with funding from the Carnegie Foundation.
Focused on education pathways from high school to career, MCC has taken a community-minded approach to increase opportunity for students in Flint and the surrounding region.
Q&A with Dr. Tanya Scott
Q: For people who may not be familiar with the term, can you explain what a professional learning community (PLC) is, and why it’s a valuable tool for community colleges and their partners?
A: When confronted by high failure and low retention rates, it is common to reach for one idealized solution after another in an attempt to solve the problem. Unfortunately, we tend to move to new policies and programs before deeply understanding the complexity and context of the issues that challenge our work. The PLC project was designed to move colleges beyond this quick fix mindset and instead help them focus on building collaboration between multiple constituents and stakeholders to create cohesive and effective workforce pathways.
A PLC, or professional learning community, can take on many forms — we often hear of student PLCs or faculty PLCs that form around common interests and affiliation groups. This project focused on examining complex issues within separate systems in order to improve the student experience — from high school through college and into family-sustaining employment opportunities — by way of a cohesive pathway that leverages the resources offered at each institution along a student’s academic journey. Recognizing the need for commitment across the ecosystem to design these pathways, the PLC moves away from silver-bullet solutions that address only one piece of the pathway. Instead, PLC participants examine student pathways from high school through employment and seek opportunities to engage all stakeholders, institutions, and organizations that can play a role in a student’s journey. Through collaboration, PLCs accomplish more together than they would have alone.
Q: Tell us about the work that Mott Community College (MCC) has been doing as a leader of the Flint PLC.
A: Leaders at Mott Community College (MCC) had identified opportunity gaps for the students they served, particularly when it came to providing clear, accessible pathways to family-sustaining careers for economically marginalized learners in the region. Local institutions and organizations were not coordinating efforts, resulting in challenges and incongruencies that learners encountered as they transitioned from high school to college or from college to career. MCC set a goal to offer career-oriented and high-paying career technical education (CTE) pathways to all students, whether they were enrolled in CTE programs or on a track to transfer to college.
As a result of their work with the PLC project, MCC created Connect2Career: a low-cost, high-impact model to put students on a path toward their educational or career goals. The model has found success thanks to broad cross-district participation, with all but one high school in Flint engaging in the initiative. Connect2Career includes MCC’s early college program and offers pathways into CTE fields with options available for families. With their focus on the whole community, MCC established a model that wasn’t just an academic transfer program, but instead offered flexible options that students could work into their busy lives.
“MCC established itself as a centering hub for the region, with the ability to bring everyone together for conversations and sharing.”
Q: What has MCC accomplished through the regional PLC, with support from community partners, that they would not have been able to achieve alone?
A: The Connect2Career model requires the support, collaboration, and engagement of a variety of community stakeholders, including high school districts and industry partners. The efficacy of the program relies on parallel efforts with these partners to promote CTE education in a non-competitive and equitable way. MCC is now moving to establish a consortium of CTE leaders in the area and to create a communication plan to map the pathways for K–12 students and families. MCC established itself as a centering hub for the region, with the ability to bring everyone together for conversations and sharing.
Q: What advice would you give to college leaders who are forming PLCs (or other partnerships) with a goal to better support equitable pathways for students? How have you seen MCC leaders take this advice to deliver results for their community?
A: PLCs embarking on this work may encounter pervasive deficit-minded thinking where institutional processes and perceptions effectively “fail” students before they are even enrolled, making choices for student progression based on deficit versus asset-based thinking, and imposing barriers to access and progression. PLCs encountered perceptions that students are not prepared or capable of completing the college-level work required in the proposed pathways. The PLC can be an effective mechanism to challenge this mindset and to make equity central to the conversation.
We also recommend communicating the purpose and vision of their work to a broader audience across the ecosystem. This approach helps to solicit interest and possible partners, while also serving to expand the work of the team.
All participants should recognize they are most effective when participation is not self-serving but instead facilitative and collaborative. A focus on shared responsibility where all stakeholders understand their contribution to the shared vision should be core to the work. This requires shifting the lead role to a facilitative one, to avoid perceptions that any one member is driving the discussion toward bettering only “their” portion. This all comes down to trust so that the team can build effective pathways that better serve all students and their respective communities. This effect was most immediately seen in Flint. While MCC set out with a specific goal in mind, this ultimately was not realized as they embarked on the work and heard from other stakeholders. Instead, the PLC helped create something much more beneficial to the community.