ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg College (SPC) wants everyone to know that it is no longer merely a college within a community—it is a part of the community.
Dr. Tonjua Williams, senior vice president, Office of Student Services, said that she is proud of the work that SPC is doing as a college as it strives to serve and get involved in each individual community.
“Seminole may not need what Midtown needs,” she affirmed. “Tarpon may not need what St. Pete needs. So each campus seeks to be a part of that community and whatever those needs are.”
In August of 2015, SPC plans to open its new Midtown Center at 22nd Street and Third Avenue South, complete with classrooms, labs, student services, community areas and a library. The framework is already up and once completed, the three-story building will have a “flavor of the community” with some historical pieces, Williams explained.
“The building is for educating those that live in that community that can walk to the facility and get the full service like those who are at the Gibbs campus,” said Williams who has been with SPC for 28 years.
Williams said the college is looking at offering a community center for meetings and is partnering with local churches and support groups to help with academics and student success. She added that the college has made a lot of commitments to Midtown and the surrounding organizations in that area.
“Everything we do there is in partnership,” she said, stating that they are now involved with the minority community more than ever.
Williams stressed that the goal is to help all first-time college students, but said that the population that struggles the most are those who are unprepared or underprepared.
“There are certain groups who fit that mold,” she said, “and many are minority students and students from poverty areas, so we’re focused on helping them succeed. If they succeed, their families succeed and it breaks the cycle and expands the learning for their kids, their grandkids and their great-grandkids. It has a life-changing effect.”
Williams said that a few years ago the college realized that although students were coming in the front door, they weren’t always graduating. As a result, SPC has adopted a much more hands-on role in helping the students succeed in school and in life.
The strategies the college has implemented are the vision of Dr. William Law, the president of SPC for the past four years. These include expanded out-of-class support, integrated career and academic advising, improved new student orientation, the Early Alert System and an enhanced learning plan.
The strategies are all a part of getting to know the students and finding out why they are there, and the new-look academic advising is an integral part of that.
“In the past,” Williams explained, “an advisor just sat with the student with a catalogue and said, ‘Take this course.’ Now an advisor will say, ‘Are you working? Do you have children? What are your strong areas? What are the areas you’re concerned about? Have you tested the waters in Nursing? You say you don’t like math and science. What career are you here for?’”
Diana Sabino, executive director of Marketing and Public Information at SPC, agreed that this more personal approach has been adopted by all advisors and faculty.
“Every faculty and staff,” she said, “no matter what campus, is focused on student success.”
Sabino and Williams believe that the tutoring program has gone a long way in helping students maintain their grades and excelling in their classes.
“Tutoring, online and face-to-face, has become a part of the fabric of our institution,” Williams said. “Our faculty encourages students to go to tutoring. We have very good instructors who know how to tutor, we have tutoring groups and we have individual help offered in the mornings, evenings and some weekends.”
Sabino added that many faculty members have devoted a number of hours to tutoring in the learning resource centers outside their normal workloads. Williams reported that if students go to tutoring five times, they have an 85 percent better chance to pass the course.
“Five times is our magic number,” she said. “We advertise that to the students: ‘Don’t wait till you’re in trouble!’ Getting help early on is not a bad thing. Actually, it’s great!”
Williams noted that some may think there is a stigma attached to getting extra help, but the college is encouraging students to seek all the help they need to perform well in their classes and graduate.
“Many students—especially our minority students—seem to think tutoring is for bad kids,” she said, “or for those who are struggling; when in fact, it’s really to keep them from struggling. We have changed our tune as to how we talk about it.”
Williams noted that this past spring she visited all the SPC campuses on the first day of school and was pleasantly surprised to see that all the tutoring labs were full.
“I was very encouraged to see no open seats in the tutoring lab at 9 a.m.,” Williams said. “Downtown, Midtown, pretty much on all the campuses. Students are learning to get help before they need help.”
Other key pieces of Dr. Law’s strategy include a learning plan, which Williams calls a “roadmap that guides them so students don’t get lost along the way” and improved face-to-face orientation. But perhaps the most innovative part of the strategy to aid in students succeeding may be the Early Alert System, which aims to keep students from falling too far behind before it’s too late.
“We’ve looked at what we call gateway courses,” Williams stated, “courses that all students have to take to get their A.A., but sometimes they seem to be road blocks for students. We asked the faculty when a student isn’t doing well in class, to let his or her advisor know so some intervention can happen.”
This may come in the form of an email or even a direct call to the student, to get to the root of the problem and provide him with a way to help. According to Sabino, these innovations have proven effective.
“The students are responding well to the Early Alert and the tutoring, she said. We’ve seen continued success for the past three years in the initiative. When we went to the board for the budget process this year, the dollars were all put toward the next phase of improving the college experience.”
Williams added: “Our dollars follow our value, which is really encouraging. Our president and our board of trustees provide tremendous support to help students succeed.”
Sabino explained that the college is attracting students of all backgrounds more than ever, and noted SPC is ranked in the top 100 colleges nationally for Hispanic enrollment.
“When students succeed and finish we know they’re going to be a successful contributing member of the community,” she attested, “and I think as a college, that’s the greatest thing we can give back to any community. Helping those students, especially those minorities who are stuck in the cycle get out of it and get into a good job.”
Williams stated simply: “We change families. That’s what happened to me. People get educated, they learn about it, it comes to the next person and the next person, and they say ‘I can go to college!’ It’s huge!”
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