The Return of the SStF Learning Network Convening

0290 Ecs Conference Denver 03may2022

In May, Strong Start to Finish hosted our annual Learning Network Convening in Denver, Colo. For many, this event, Celebrating Our Work and the Promise of Dev Ed Reform, was their first time attending an in-person convening since the pandemic began. Designed as an invitation-only event to create an intimate experience, we curated sessions featuring the work of our SStF network from 2018–2021. Together, we celebrated our network’s achievements and shared practical applications to support faculty and advance reforms for those who are often placed into dev ed courses — students who are racially minoritized, those with low incomes and returning adults.

Inspiring Keynote Features a New Vision for Dev Ed Reforms

We kicked off the event with a keynote from Dr. Laura Rendón, professor emerita at University of Texas at San Antonio, and scholar who has been a long-time champion of marginalized students who are relegated to dev ed courses. Rendón acknowledged the improvements that have resulted from structural reforms and pointed to empirical research that shows how students who are racially minoritized, and those from low-income communities, continue to be affected by inequitable placement, policy and practices — despite improved overall outcomes from dev ed reform efforts.

An Equity and Justice Mindset

In addition to highlighting the types of invalidating experiences students can have in dev ed reform programs, Rendón presented a new vision for reform, which includes an equity and justice mindset. This requires acknowledging the negative cultural narratives that exist about these student groups as well as recognizing the important assets that racially minoritized students bring to their college experiences. She also emphasized the ways that her validation theory, and other contemporary pedagogies, can cultivate equity, justice and inclusion to support these students’ success. These pedagogies include anti-racist pedagogy, culturally relevant pedagogy, and sentipensante pedagogy.

Rendón noted, “This new narrative is about creating an equity and justice-based system that enables the most under-resourced students to succeed … I want our students to have the kind of education rich kids get in private colleges and universities.”

On the first day we also learned about the work done at sites during a joint plenary with leaders from our original scaling sites and technical assistance partners; and hosted hands-on sessions facilitated by leaders from our two additional scaling sites, funding partners, faculty researchers and system-level leaders, SStF staff and a team that evaluated SStF. On day two, our strategy site leaders engaged participants in discussions about their work. Network partners — who conducted technical assistance and research — hosted interactive sessions on commissioned publications.

The sessions were designed to emphasize the types of efforts that are occurring in the field to address inequities in dev ed reform.

What’s Next in Dev Ed Reform Efforts?

At the start of the convening, we asked attendees to identify strategies that could support colleges in their efforts to deliver on education outcomes for SStF student groups — who often are the least resourced and can experience the highest levels of disparities in higher education. At the end of the convening, attendees shared a host of ideas and questions that they would take to move the work forward in their respective organizations, colleges and higher education system offices. Here are a few that they offered:

As we continue to center race and equity in our work, how do we make sure that students feel the impact of those efforts?

We must engage in experiential learning in ways that are culturally sensitive.

It is important to persuade faculty with data, particularly their own course-level data.

As we move from looking at students from a deficit lens to an asset lens, we need to remember to do the same with faculty. What is the asset-based approach to faculty, in addition to students? We need to be sure it’s not about the blame game.

During this celebratory event, identifying and sharing these types of strategies with each other was particularly important because, from the first phase of our initiative, we know that dealing with tomorrow’s dev ed reform challenges calls for us to go beyond solely depending on what we’ve learned from yesterday’s achievements.

As we look to next steps, funders, system leaders, faculty, researchers and policy makers must identify and employ the effective practices and policies in the field and determine what needs to be done to support the success of students who are least well-served by these efforts. As Dr. Rendón reminded attendees, “Let’s be bold. Much is at stake if we don’t do this work!”