Pam Lawson's Retention Strategies for Adult Learners
Adult Ed program in the Colorado Springs District 11 School District


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1--Describe the population served in your program.

We serve adults from about 17 years of age to any age upward. The large portion of these at lower educational levels are from many foreign countries. As the class levels are higher, it seems that more of the students are younger and really working to get their GEDs. We also have people mandated by law to be in school, a large number of those under 21 who recently dropped out of high school. Others are simply adults who are in many stages of life who want to improve their lives or get their GED. Class level begins at 0 and goes up to 12.9.

2--Positive retention practices in place now.

There is a very comprehensive orientation program which makes clear the expectations and advantages of the program. The students are given a preliminary assessment test (TABE) which helps to place them in the proper class. They do not pay money until after this point so they may back out before starting if they feel they cannot finish. They know expectations ahead of time so they can hopefully do a bit of planning to be able to remain in the program. They can also communicate to family or support people about what is going to be expected so they will also be prepared if there are issues like car or child care.

The staff members are friendly and attentive to their questions and needs. The students are always welcome to come and ask questions, voice complaints, etc.

There is cooperation between our school and various other agencies which help provide funding for students. Because there is monthly communication and reporting on the student’s progress, they can get added encouragement or exhortation from the agency to keep on and not quit.

We have a scholarship plan which helps students with class tuition. They must fill out an application and their teacher must also give evidence that this student is trying hard, attends class and will not waste the money spent on him/her. For some students, the money is hard to get so this eliminates that problem for those who are really unable to pay but have a great desire to learn.

Our students are not stuck in one class for the whole year. There are at least 2 or 3 other TABE tests given throughout the middle of the year. As students become proficient and get high enough scores, they are moved to the next class. There are separate math and reading classes so one low score does not keep them down in both classes. They will know they are reaching their goal faster and it helps them to feel success.

Teachers have phone numbers of students so we can call them if they miss class. This helps them see the interest the teacher has in them as a person.

The office has a person who will call students who have missed 2 or more classes as well. This will help to “catch” students who have just gotten into a bad habit of skipping class after there was a real reason for not attending. It also helps younger students to know their parents will find out if they are not in class.

We have a payment plan for tuition so the students do not have to pay the whole amount of tuition on the first day. The students can pay as they are able through the semester so funding is a less difficult issue.

Classes are offered at different times of day and different days to make it easier for students to be able to attend class. They may also move from one class time to another (if there is space) if work schedules change and they are not able to continue in the class time in which they began. They don’t have time conflicts as an issue for stopping.

There are computer classes available for students which they may sign up for outside class time. Some class times can actually be done in the computer lab (we share this with the Pikes Peak Work Force Center so it is not always available). These meet a real desire and need for students. They may also register at the Work Force Center and get a card which will permit them to use the large number of computers they have for job hunting.

The teachers are all student-centered. These people teach because they want to do it. They don’t get high enough pay for that to be the incentive! Any teacher is willing to help a student if they possibly can. The teachers are all highly qualified with most almost finished with LIA requirements and they put these practices into practice in their classrooms. We have monthly meetings and times to just share teaching projects or methods which have worked with our students so we can always have fresh ideas.

We have a VERY BIG Graduation ceremony at the end of the year for the students who have received their GED. An important personality from the city is invited to speak along with school board members, school superintendent and other important people from the community. It is held in a large auditorium so family and friends can all come. They try to have a speaker who also had to work to get his GED but has been successful and has achieved advanced degrees. There is reception time with cookies and punch. There is also a time for recognition of students at every level of the program who have overcome great odds and worked very hard during the year. They are recognized and walk across the platform as their names are called. This gives them the inside picture of what could happen to them when they receive their GED. Pictures of this event are often published in a local paper.

Our school district is doing Continuous Quality Improvement which gives a visual for the students to see how they are doing.

After each TABE, my students fill in a sheet which has enumerated the various skills for each question. They can see their areas of strength and weakness. I keep a copy as well so I know what we need to work on. They can then compare from test to test to see progress.

My class members also have a graph for timed math fact tests. This allows them to see their progress very graphically. They fill in the bars on the graph paper to show the number they got right in the time allowed.

3—My own student population

My students are about 2/3 foreigners who have been in the U.S. for varying amounts of time. About 1/3 are older citizens who just want to come back to better themselves and to be able to get better jobs. A small number are under 21 and often are single mothers who realize the need to get a GED.

One practice which I have always done but which I will continue is to really get to know the students individually. I always try to have all things for class ready by 15 minutes before class begins so I can just talk to students about family, problems, joys, things they did over the weekend, etc. I want my students to know that I really care about them as just another person. This has been one of the factors which I think keeps my students coming. We laugh a lot and I laugh at my mistakes and tell them they need to catch me if I do make a mistake. My goal here is to make them glad to be in class and to enjoy each other while there. It is quite informal so the emphasis is on relationships. I walk around and personally help students during time to work individually. We try to make class more fun by reading amusing stories, doing logic puzzles and crossword puzzles and by having team competitions. Another activity they have enjoyed is my reading a short “who-dunnit” story and having them try to figure out how the detective was able to solve the case with the facts at hand. This helps them with comprehension as well.

A second plan that I have is to help my students to set some month-long goals in reading and math in the respective classes. I have made up a form for reading class where they will write down how many books they will plan to read during the month. Then there is a place where they can check the kind of reading skill they want to work on that month. I have also made a simple page that outlines the ways they can on their own work on that reading skill. These pages will be kept in a personal folder to keep in the classroom. Then at the beginning of the month they will confirm if they met the goal and set a new goal and choose a skill to work on again. They will list the books read as well so they can look back to see how many they read. I have a similar plan for math class. I hope this will give them a personal goal which is not far off but can be reachable so they will be able to see success and desire more.

A third plan that I want to use is to give them a choice list of about 5 items to mark the two that they think would be most helpful for them at this time. Then we will use these as the basis for learning for that month. The kinds of things will be as listed on SCANS or CASAS skill lists. This should meet their present desires and needs and make them feel the relevancy of school to their everyday lives. I want to have many more actual forms, workplace or home kind of projects. Examples of this will be to practice writing notes to a boss about illness, taking phone messages to give to another person, planning for a shopping trip or budget, using a certain amount of available money to plan a birthday party for a child, etc. We will read instruction manuals and warranties and recipes and insurance policies, etc.

A fourth plan is to set up a project as planning a trip and going through the steps as I outlined in my lesson plan. This will give them lots of necessary skills for the workplace and life and I think could be enjoyable. I hope they will see how they can use planning to fulfill more of their dreams. We will talk about how planning could be carried over into other areas of life besides just planning a vacation.

A fifth thing I would like to do is to have a discussion early on in the semester to help them manage positive and negative forces in their lives (NCSALL article “Helping Adults Persist: Four Supports”). I think that if they can see the things that help in their education and also be made aware of the negative forces working against them that this will help them have more success. The sharing of ideas and getting support from others in the group should help to build the community of that classroom to encourage attendance and mutual support.

Additionally, I plan to do more personal calling of students when they miss class. The ERIC Digest No. 76 talks about following up inactive students with phone calls and I plan to do more of this.

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CDE Adult Education and Family Literacy, Center for At-Risk Education (CARE)