This page is located at:

Implementation Isn't Easy

Implementation Isn't Easy

Staff turnover and staff resistance impair implementation of the Youth Cultural Competence model. This Missouri program comes up with a hybrid that works.

by Janet Geary
The North Kansas City School District Adult Education and Literacy program had a problem. About 600 students were enrolling throughout the year, of whom about 60 percent, or 360, were younger than 25 years old. Overall, only about 10 percent of the youth who listed completion of the GED as a primary or secondary goal were actually completing it within the year. As the administrator of the program, I was searching for a way to improve retention and GED completion rates, particularly among the youth in our program. I decided to start by focusing on the group of under-25-year-old day students, which includes about 20 people on any given day.

At the same time, the Metropolitan Alliance for Adult Learning (MAAL), a consortium of adult educators from the metropolitan Kansas City area, observed that adult education programs throughout the area were having trouble serving youth well (see article). In July, 2000, the MAAL invited our program to participate with a cadre of adult education teachers from other area programs to explore the Youth Development and Research Fund's model of youth workforce preparation, Youth Cultural Competence (YCC). Our lead teacher, Karen, and I participated in this training and decided to apply the YCC techniques for engaging youth in workforce readiness training to our GED preparation program.

Our program model had been open-entry, open-exit, with individualized instruction. Students could come into the center at any timeb we were open 43 hours a week, over five days and four eveningsb and work on their own, receiving periodic input from a teacher. To implement the model we learned about in the YCC training (see page 6 for more about this) would involve significant programmatic changes. We wanted to shift to twice-a-week group sessions, in addition to individualized instruction. Karen would have to teach group lessons using different instructional methods than those to which she was accustomed, and she would need to draw on radically different instructional materials.

Introducing Change
As administrator, I am free to institute change as I see fit, but change won't happen unless those who implement it are also invested in it. To prepare for changes in instruction methods and materials, Karen and I decided to start small. We invited several of our young students to participate in a focus group to see what kinds of music they listened to, what movies they went to see, and who their "heroes" were. We provided snacks and held a drawing for a $10 gift certificate as an incentive. We emphasized that we wanted to make the group sessions critically relevant to their lives and tried to let them do most of the talking and record their ideas. The focus group helped us to get acquainted with the students and observe how they might interact in a classroom setting.

We advertised the change to all the 16- to 25-year-olds enrolled in the program at the time by sending them postcards, putting up fliers, and putting notes in their individual folders. We wanted participants to come to both group sessions a week, but did not require it. We have the luxury of having a separate room adjoining our learning center in which to hold our group sessions, and we had a part-time teacher available to help those who wanted to continue to work on their own.

I worked with Karen to design lessons and activities that integrated elements of popular culture with critical reading, math, or language arts activities. Our students were interested in hip-hop music. We developed a lesson around music following the YCC model. Students are given sheets with the typed out lyrics to a song that has a positive message. The song is played for all to listen to as the students follow the lyrics. Students highlight passages that have meaning to them, then share what they highlighted and why. This activity encourages students to examine the content of the song critically, gives them an opportunity to express themselves, and pushes them to take a look at their music and the message it conveys. The teacher is able to observe students interacting and note how they verbalize their thoughts. This is an engaging way to build critical thinking and reading skills needed for the GED.

Another lesson we developed involves cell phones. Many of our students use cell phones and were discussing issues regarding usage, bills, and service restrictions. We developed a math activity using the actual cell phone bills of our students. We discussed the parameters of various plans, how costs were figured, and how plans differ. The students all became better consumers and developed math and critical thinking skills in the process.

Implementation Grant
A $5,000 implementation grant from MAAL helped us get the program started. With those funds, we added two items to our program that appeal to nearly every young person regardless of educational level: food and money. We always had snacks and drinks available during class. The students developed a reward system based on attendance, with one student assuming responsibility for tracking attendance. Students earned a $20 gift certificate to a store of their choice after attending class for a specified number of hours. After a few months, we found out that people were more interested in socializing and being together than in the academic progress. So, since the focus of our program is academic progress, we shifted to rewards for progress on the Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) and GED practice tests rather than on attendance.

The fund also allowed us to purchase current magazines for the learning center for students to read. We selected magazines based upon students' interests based on conversations with them. We have used The Source, Teen People, Nascar Illustrated, Tiger Beat, Twist, Basketball News, Road Racer, and Pro Wrestling Illustrated. We also base reading and language activities on the magazines.

We discovered that most of our students are not accustomed to spending any time at all thinking about their thinking and making connections between education and life. At the end of an activity, we asked, "How does this apply to GED?" At first, they couldn't answer. We had to "feed" them the answers, pointing out, for example, that hip hop music was a form of poetry. To promote an understanding of this connection, an essential component of each activity is reflection. Each lesson ends with a discussion of the role of the activity in preparing for the GED test.

Staff Turnover
As of July, 2002, our primary teacher, Karen, was not able to continue working with the two teen-focused group sessions and grant funds were no longer available. The next year was spent struggling to find a teacher who could take our work with youth to the next level. We suspended group instruction for five months. I was looking for a teacher who was able to relate well to young people, had strong teaching skills, and who was willing to experiment with new concepts. I trained the teacher we hired on YCC; MAAL provided some training as well. We restarted the teen-focused group sessions. Our new teacher was able to develop the relationships with the students but not to integrate the material with youth popular culture or relate the lessons to GED prep as effectively as we had hoped. The students were not always encouraged to analyze why they engaged in certain activities and lessons. They were not actively involved in planning the classes; and youth popular culture was seldom used as a vehicle to teach the required academic skills.

That year we added a Learning Support Specialist (case manager) to our team. Even though our program is located in a suburban area and most of our students are not dealing with the severe poverty and crime associated with an urban area, complicated issues frequently hinder their academic success. Our students deal with mental and physical illness, domestic violence, substance abuse, family responsibilities, unstable housing, and legal proceedings. The Learning Support Specialist counsels students, refers them to appropriate agencies, and assists them when disruptions occur. She facilitates group sessions focusing on communication skills, employability skills, and interview techniques. The supportive relationship she develops with the students as they journey through the GED preparation process is different from the kinds of relationships their teachers have with them.

The Learning Support Specialist is employed half-time in our program and half-time by Synergy Services, Inc., a local service agency. The development of this partnership was without a doubt the highlight of the year. The agencies cooperate to aid participants in both programs. For example, Synergy had already developed a workplace readiness component that the facilitator was able to personalize and offer to our students. We receive donations of children's books and school supplies that we give to Synergy to use in their teen parent program.

At the same time, several of our students in their late 20s and early 30s told us that they felt left out and wanted to participate in group sessions as well. They were welcomed into the class along with the teens. Each session now has from 10 to 15 students, half of whom are younger than 25; half are 25 to 35. The classes were effective: retention rates were up to about 80 percent, but, in May of 2003, we were once again looking for a teacher.

One More Change
The final major change to our program design resulted from this change in teaching staff and the introduction of project-based learning via another staff development offering from the MAAL. Project-based learning involves having students participate in a relevant project in order to develop academic skills (see Focus on Basics). The project selected by the students is a bimonthly newsletter to share with present and potential students that illustrates what is available in the GED program. Students determine the content of the newsletter, write the articles, take the photos, and edit the work.

Now, four days a week we have at least one group session and on some days we have more than one. Topics include reading, language, math, and (at least once a month) employability skills. The groups are open not just to the younger students but to all students. The majority of the students are under 25, but the groups are definitely of mixed ages. For example, recently in one class of 11 students, six were under 25 and the oldest was 58.

"The various groups we offer have grown naturally. We started by offering a math group. The students then began to request that we offer other groups focusing on other subject areas. Each time we offer any group, the Learning Support Specialist and I go around the classroom and personally invite every student to join us in class. We try to keep our approach quite low key and non-threatening. Our students are now our primary recruitment tool," reports Lorie, our primary instructor.

One group session a week focuses on the newsletter, which integrates material from multiple subject areas. Students still have the option of participating in group instruction or continuing to work independently. About 80 percent of all students who attend on any given day choose to participate in the groups. Students offer various reasons for this. "I'm a visual person, so I can grasp the material better in groups than when I work on my own. We make the work fun. When you enjoy something while you're learning, you remember it longer," explains Novena.

Tammy, a returning student, comments, "I've been in GED classes off and on for several years, and I never completed. I lost interest when I was working all by myself. Now I look forward to coming each day."

Our students have a great time laughing and learning together. Mixing the ages doesn't seem to be an issue. The life experience of the older students is well received by the younger students, while the younger students often introduce freshness and energy to the class. The mixed ages also helps keep the group time focused on academics rather than socializing.

Students encourage and support each other when needed and challenge each other when it is appropriate. Debbie, the Learning Support Specialist, comments, "I personally enjoy relating to the student as a whole person not just on an academic level. It's really heartening to observe the students interacting and connecting with each other as well as with the staff."

The relationships formed in the groups continue during the individual study time and students often work together outside of group time. "You can get ideas from other students as well as the teacher. We help each other a lot too. It helps me learn when I help someone else," says Loi, a current student.

We have discovered that students involved in the group instruction stay in class longer, are more likely to reach their academic goals, continue to have contact with the Learning Center teachers once they leave class, and keep us apprised of their progress toward achieving their life goals. The students who attend our group classes averaged 93 hours in class as opposed to 36 hours per student in the overall program. The GED pass rate program wide is about 10 percent. The students in our group classes have a pass rate of about 22 percent.

A Learning Community
Our day program has evolved into a learning community that blends direct group instruction, project-based learning, Youth Cultural Competence, and fun. Even though the blend of direct group instruction and individualized instruction is working well in the day program, the evening teachers are convinced that their population is significantly different and would feel hampered by direct group instruction. Change is always uncomfortable, and not all of our teachers are willing to abandon their comfort zone and try new and different methods. As we hire new teachers, they are expected to use more directed group instruction rather than individualized instruction.

YCC helped us understand the value of student involvement in planning activities and the importance of a positive peer culture. We discovered that lessons that revolved around popular culture were engaging, but students struggled to make the connection between those lessons and the GED preparation process. Students enrolled in our program are interested in GED preparation regardless of their ages; therefore, their commonality becomes GED preparation rather than age. It seems to us that making positive personal connections with each other as well as with staff, being involved in planning, and having the common goal of passing the GED help the students persist. The real shift was in getting students into groups. The connections they make with each other and our staff often continue after they leave the program, whether they actually complete the program or just drift away. Sometimes they return to our learning center as students and sometimes they just come back to chat. They feel we are all in this together.

Our program is not perfect and neither are our processes, but our learning community is meeting students' needs better than it was four years ago. We continue to strive to provide experiences for our students that will lead them to make academic progress, solve problems, learn the value of lifelong learning, and nurture relationships.

About the Author
Janet Geary is the Director of Community Education Services for the North Kansas City School District in Kansas City, MO, and has been involved in adult education and literacy since 1986. During her tenure in adult education, she has helped initiate and carry out several projects to fine tune processes and services for adult education students.