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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue D ::: February 04

ODWIN: A Program Rooted in History

by Mary Tacelli
In the early 1960s, President Kennedy inspired the nation with a sense of concern for the well-being of our fellow world-citizens and a sense that each of us could indeed make a significant difference. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and people were beginning to respond to Martin Luther King's invitation to join him in the pursuit of a shiningly hopeful dream. The dream was strikingly elusive in Boston. Children in some of the city's neighborhood schools were being short-changed in terms of the education and career counseling they received. Many minority youngsters were being counseled away from college preparation and into domestic and shop courses.

Nurse-educator Mary Malone was concerned about the dearth of minority students at the professional level in health care. She mobilized more than 100 volunteers to provide accurate information and guidance about careers in nursing and the allied health fields to Boston youngsters wishing to pursue professional careers. The volunteers also offered tutoring and mentoring to the students, throughout high school and college. The ODWIN (Opening Doors Wider In Nursing) Learning Center was born. By 1966, the parents of these students and other adults asked for similar help. In response, ODWIN opened its own doors wider to the population that would eventually become the program's sole focus: adults with great potential, but inadequate education, who aspired to a professional-level career requiring college credentials. ODWIN also broadened its focus beyond the health field to any professional career.

Today, ODWIN's mission is to prepare adults for success in college so that they can enter and succeed in professional careers. We began before there were adult basic education (ABE), English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), and General Educational Development (GED) programs. We have since incorporated aspects of all these services into our program design, making it difficult to categorize us. ODWIN today is a multifaceted, all-purpose college preparatory program for adults.

Program Design
Malone applied the approach to patient care she used as a nurse to education. Our diagnostic and prescriptive method focuses on each individual's with specific strengths, weaknesses, needs, goals, and methods of learning. We made many mistakes in those early days because what we called the ODWIN 100, our group of founding volunteers, were already providing service before they recognized the need for this type of detailed planning. Our work with those first students made the need evident. We learned that, based on a student's career goal, we needed to answer the following questions: 

The answers allowed us to design an approach that would enable the student to develop and strengthen the necessary skills in a timely and effective way. 

Researching Course Content
To answer the academic skills question required researching the courses that our students would be taking in college, examining textbooks, students' class notes, and tests to determine the skills necessary to handle the material well. For example, which specific math skills would a person need who wanted to become a pharmacist? a dentist? a nurse? an accountant? 

Teachers from each major subject area - math, reading, English, and science - assessed the college material from their own specialty's perspective, and then shared information across disciplines. For example, the reading teachers examined some excerpts selected by a math or science teacher to determine the reading skills needed to master the material. The math group did likewise to science samples. 

Although most of our early students were interested in health-related fields, which helped narrow the scope of the project, this research took time. Once completed, it provided us with a comprehensive list of skills in each area, and a subset of each that we deemed essential to success in preparation for each specific career. We also had a base on which to build information on career goals outside the health fields. Continued contact with students once they have moved on to college enables us to update that base as needed.

Assessment Tools
The teachers in each area then designed assessment tools to test students' mastery level of the skills identified above. Many of the basic skills have universal applicability and are included across the board, with career-specific items added as appropriate. For example, a person aspiring to a career in accounting needs the same basic math skills (whole numbers, ratio fractions, decimals, and percentages) as the person pursuing a nursing career. But the future nurse needs a solid understanding of measurement, as well, using both the metric and apothecary systems, and must be able to convert between the two systems.

With the exception of our newly developed computer diagnostic, we use paper and pencil tests with room for figuring in math. They are not timed, and we urge people not to agonize over them because they are neither graded nor ranked, but are strictly for planning purposes. A grade provides one assessment of a student's skills: 15 correct out of 25 items, for example, indicates that the person seems to possess 60 percent of the skills tested. But which ones? And, more to the point for planning, which specific skills does the 40 percent indicate that the person seems not to possess? We must prescribe a remedy to enable the student to succeed at that last 40 percent. Consequently, each of the original pre-tests, as well as the many subsequent revisions, had to be designed to provide skill-specific information.

The three core - or foundation - areas consist of reading/study skills; basic math and communication skills, which include grammar and writing, and are tested on paper; and speaking and listening, which, when appropriate, are tested in interviews. The advanced courses include algebra, chemistry, composition, and biology. The teachers created post-tests that are similar to the pre-tests for each area; they use them for comparison when students complete components of their plans.

An ODWIN Student's Journey
After attending an information session, a potential student first takes the series of diagnostic tests in the core academic areas of reading/study skills, basic math, and communication skills. If any of those tests indicate sufficient strength in the skills tested, a more advanced test is given to identify the level, if any, at which the student should begin work in that skill area. For example, if the basic math test indicates no weaknesses, the person would then take the algebra pre-test.

As the teachers correct the diagnostic tests, they prepare a profile of the person's strengths and weaknesses in each subject along with recommendations. These form the framework of the person's individualized student educational plan: a program of study designed with the student within the framework of the diagnostic test results as they apply to the student's career goal. The teachers also include estimates of the time the student is likely to need at ODWIN to acquire and strengthen the specific skills required for success in a desired college curriculum. For example, the student might need work in one or more of the foundation courses, one or more of the advanced courses, or a combination. Then a staff member meets with the student to discuss the rationale for the recommendations and to help him or her develop an action plan to implement them within the context of her daily responsibilities and time constraints. 

The Foundation Courses 
ODWIN is not strictly a basic education program, but most students who enroll need some work at the foundation level. Not everyone needs the same skills, however, and students are frequently self-conscious, insecure, and reluctant to ask questions when they first start classes. Consequently, we decided early on to combine individualized instruction with a group setting for each of the three foundation courses.

A basic math class, for example, which meets twice a week for two hours each time, may have up to but not more than eight students, each of whom has a study plan based on the skills he or she needs. The teacher, a staff member with a math background, works with each student individually on one aspect of a specific skill, leaving that student to practice the skill while the teacher moves on to another student. Because the concepts are presented in small increments, students can grasp the general idea sufficiently to solidify their understanding through practice, with the teacher returning periodically to make sure the student is on track and to respond to any questions. This approach is extremely demanding on the teacher, but enables the student to make remarkable progress in a short time. On the worst of days, several students could be ready to begin a new topic at the same time. After the first week or so students are working independently and at their own speed. Lacking the need to keep up with other students or to wait for others to keep up with them, our students are free to move at a comfortable and productive pace. The privacy of working with the teacher one-on-one makes it easier to ask questions. The student develops a real understanding of the concepts covered, experiences success early and frequently, and gains greater self-confidence as well as solid academic advancement.

The basic English and reading/study skills classes operate similarly, staffed by experienced teachers. Depending on the class composition, these language arts classes are sometimes limited to seven students. While we do not include computer skills in the foundation category, we do conduct computer classes using the individualized approach.

When ODWIN started, no market had as yet developed for basic skills material for adults. Rather than use materials devised for young readers, we had to develop most of our own teaching materials. As a result, our file cabinets, crammed with original teaching materials designed by ODWIN staff and revised periodically to keep them current and applicable, are our most valued possessions. Supplemented by various workbooks and an English manual, Writer's Choice, published by Glencoe, these are our texts for the foundation courses. Not only does this provide material targeting the adult learner, but it also provides the flexibility necessary for individualized instruction. Each student constructs a book tailor-made to his or her needs, building it unit by unit. Each unit addresses one concept, initially presented by the teacher in a one-to-one instructional session. 

The Advanced Courses
Regardless of how effective the individualized foundation courses are, students must be prepared to handle more impersonal college courses. For this reason, algebra, biology, chemistry, composition, humanities, notetaking, pharmacological math, and thinking/ reasoning are more conventionally structured group classes. Using various presentation styles including demonstration, modified lecture with student/ teacher interaction, discovery exercises, and student presentations, the instructor controls the pace at which material must be mastered to introduce the student to the independent approach to learning required in college. Students also learn how to use a syllabus and a textbook to full advantage, the need for planning to meet deadlines, and the value of keeping track of one's average rather than focusing on isolated grades. 

Because our primary goal is to provide the student with strong skills and an adequate knowledge base, classes are still relatively small (no more than 18 students) so that a teacher can quickly recognize any student who might need extra help outside of class. For both levels of biology, chemistry, and composition, we use high school texts. The other advanced courses use a combination of original, staff-designed material, and various publications.

The staff provides educational counseling throughout students' participation. When students begin the final phases of their educational plans, we work with them in selecting and applying to college: advising, demonstrating how to collect information, suggesting various resources, proofreading applications, and critiquing essays. Students themselves must do the leg-work, however: try the dry run to see if the commute to a specific college is manageable, use the suggested resources to research possible scholarships.

Continued Contact
ODWIN's mission has always been to help people reach a professional level of employment. Therefore, we cannot stop at helping students get into college: we must help them get out of college successfully by maintaining contact with them. Once the student graduates from college, we provide preparation for special licensing exams. We urge our students to call for help if they feel overwhelmed or confused about anything at college. If we don't hear from students within their first month, a staff member calls to establish contact and to arrange dates and times to keep in touch. If a student has difficulty in a course, we arrange tutoring sessions with either a staff member or one of our volunteers, who are ODWIN graduates. We also tap our graduates to act as mentors for students beginning college.

This contact enables us to use the students' experiences to critique the program's effectiveness. For example, our notetaking course was developed to address difficulties students reported having in college lectures. The thinking/reasoning course likewise grew out of some students' difficulty in visualizing during college lectures and in following complex directions. We had been trying to teach these skills within biology or algebra classes, but recognized that this inevitably led to sacrificing the notetaking or thinking skill to the course content. Now the biology, composition, or algebra teacher can refer to the students' experiences in notetaking and thinking/reasoning to show students how to apply those skills to specific content.

The increase in numbers of non-native English speakers seeking services has created special challenges. We routinely refer those at the beginning levels to free programs available. Therefore, the students enrolling at ODWIN can often use English on a functional level for their day-to-day lives. With college degrees and professional careers as goals, non-native English speakers need to make a quantum leap to a high level of fluency, not only with general English grammar, composition, and reading/study skills, but also with the specialized vocabularies of mathematics and the sciences. The individualized approach makes it possible to incorporate non-native English speakers into the foundation courses. We have added a conversation club as a means for students to improve their oral and aural fluency.

Students spend an average of two and one-half years at ODWIN before moving on to college. Before adopting the approach outlined here, we had tried several different short-term approaches. The summer program proved to be effective only for those students who were already strong academically. The postgraduate year for recent high school graduates was more effective, but, since each participant brought a different level of need and unique mode of learning, the group approach fell short of the desired outcome. Tutoring college students when they experienced difficulty in a particular course proved to be a band-aid, taking the place of identifying and addressing the root of the difficulty. The difficulties that participants in these three programs experienced in college led us to espouse the individualized diagnostic/ prescriptive approach that has enabled hundreds of people to change their lives dramatically.

Of the more than 6,000 students who have enrolled in ODWIN classes, approximately 65 percent have completed their educational plans and entered college. Based on the data we have been able to collect, about 90 percent of this group have graduated from college and entered the profession to which they aspired. The thrill of teaching these students is matched only by that of seeing them receive their college degrees, cheered on by their children, many of whom packed their father's and mother's lunches during those college years.

About the Author
Mary Tacelli began as a volunteer math teacher for ODWIN in 1968, after completing work for a Master's Degree in Mathematics from the University of Notre Dame. She joined the staff as math coordinator in 1970 and, having worked closely over the years with ODWIN's founder, Mary Malone, was asked to become ODWIN's Executive Director in 1988.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL