How Long Beach City College Revamped Support for First-Year Students


How Long Beach City College Revamped Support for First-Year Students

Episode 162. August 15, 2023.

Welcome to the Office Hours with EAB podcast. You can join the conversation on social media using #EABOfficeHours. Follow the podcast on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud and Stitcher or visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes.

EAB’s Emily Mittermaier welcomes Long Beach City College Dean of Student Equity, Sonia De La Torre, and the Director of First-Year Experience at the school, Esteban Alfaro, to discuss the transformation of the school’s approach to student success. They examine the role of technology, goal setting, and how they collected data to measure the impact of their efforts on students and the institution.

The three also share tips for other schools on how to gain buy-in from stakeholders, act on their feedback appropriately, and continue to make adjustments to ensure their processes and systems remain responsive to evolving student needs.



0:00:13.0 Intro: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. We're joined today by a couple of student success leaders from one of the largest community colleges in the state of California. They're going to talk about how they transformed the way their minority serving institution onboards new students and keeps them from falling off path. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:38.5 Emily Mittermaier: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Emily Mittermaier, and I'm a strategic leader at EAB who works with our college and university partners on student success initiatives. I'm excited today to be joined by two guests who are doing amazing work in this area, Dr. Sonia De La Torre, and Mr. Esteban Alfaro, both from Long Beach City College. Welcome to the program.

0:01:00.8 Sonia De La Torre: Thank you so much, Emily. It's a great pleasure to join you.

0:01:04.8 Esteban Alfaro: Yes. Hi. Good morning, Emily. Thank you so much for being here today with us and let's get started.

0:01:10.6 EM: Wonderful. So, Sonia, why don't we start with you. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your role at Long Beach and maybe a little bit about the journey that led you there?

0:01:19.9 ST: Yes, absolutely. So I've been at Long Beach City College for seven years now, and I have the privilege of serving as the Dean of Student Equity. And as part of that portfolio, I oversee nine programmatic areas. And I think one of the things that's really interesting and unique about my portfolio is that I get to work with directors, in being able to curate experiences for students that are from pre matriculation all the way to completion. And so I have programs that are part of my portfolio, like Upward Bound and Dual Enrollment and the First Year experience, and then categorical programs for many of our vulnerable student populations, and also just unique initiatives.

0:02:02.4 ST: Our Justice Scholars program for formerly incarcerated, our Phoenix Scholars for gang impacted individuals, our male success initiative. And then, the other piece of my portfolio is being able to really assist the college in implementing large scale equity initiatives. And so I really love just the diversity in terms of the work that I get to do. I've been a practitioner in higher education, Emily, for about 20 years, and I've had the opportunity to work in the UC system, the CSU system, four year private, and now the community college system. And so I started my career as an academic advisor, and in that role I had the unique opportunity to work with transfer students. And for me, that was the first moment when I fell in love with that population and said to myself, if my career trajectory permits one day, I wanna be able to kind of start it where I see kind of the greatest transformation happening in the community college system. And so I'm here now. I sort of see it as my career coming full circle, being able to engage in really transformative work at Long Beach City College.

0:03:18.4 EM: That's amazing. And all of the various populations that you work serving now, I know that plays so much into the great work that is happening at Long Beach City College that we'll hear more about in just a few minutes. But Esteban, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your role at the college, maybe a little bit about the makeup of students at Long Beach City College as well?

0:03:40.6 EA: Yes, totally. Thank you, Emily. So my name is Esteban Alfaro. I am the Director of the First Year Experience program, and I also manage our Title V, at the campus, which we call the STiNO. So within this portfolio in the FYE side of the house we manage, I manage all the transitional supports, transitional programs to the college. So that is our biking summer voyage, that is our Summer Bridge program, our welcome day student success workshops. So all of our high school students coming in out of high school, they come through all these programs within the FYE program. So we help direct and indirect high school students or people coming from all walks of lives. Within the FYE side, we have about 13 FYE counselors, that being full-time and also part-time for Title V, which is our STEM program.

0:04:32.2 EA: We have about three STEM counselors, for both programs We do have academic coaches as well. And just to know the FYE program houses the Long Beach College Promise, which are the College Promise programs that helps students with two years of free tuition at the college. Students also join a career academy that helps them solidify their major, enter their major, get an internship, and then they transfer out or just meeting their educational goals in general. And just to tell you a little bit about Long Beach, our students join us from across the country, the state, and really the entire region. So while many of our students come from the Long Beach region, we do have a lot of students from Southern California, the entire region, about 80% of our students identify as students of color.

0:05:19.1 EA: We are a minority serving institution. So we do have an HSI designation. We also have an NFPC designation. So we are pretty, pretty large campus. We serve about 35,000 students every year. We are a single college district, but we do have two pretty large campuses in the city of Long Beach. About 67% of our students identify as economically disadvantaged. So they are receiving Pell Grant and the fee waivers, the California Fee Waiver. And then about, 60 of those identify as Latinx or Hispanic students. A lot of them are first year students. About two thirds of those Hispanic students also are need base of the fee waiver. And about 45% of our students identify as first generation college students. And just to put things in perspective when we got into this partnership with, Starfish, we wanted to utilize a program that had a large number of students. And so we decided to go with FYE, because we have about 5,000 students that come in through our program every year, which is about half of the students that we get at Long Beach City College in general. We get about 10,000 to 12,000 every year. So we decided to pilot this amazing program with our FYE programs. Thank you.

0:06:40.4 EM: Amazing. Thank you so much for that, Esteban. Now having worked with the two of you and the Starfish team at Long Beach City College, for the last few years, I know all about the amazing work that the team at the college really has done to support students who are at the college. But I know that it wasn't always that easy with Starfish. So Sonia, could you take us back to 2016 and the early days of the efforts to revamp Long Beach's approach to student success? I know that was around the time that Starfish came on board. So if you could talk a little bit about what was the goal initially, and what was your strategy for getting folks to buy in, not only to process changes that Starfish brought about, but to also embracing the Starfish technology platform as a whole.

0:07:34.7 ST: Yes, absolutely. So I started at Long Beach City College in 2016. And at the time, my supervisor said the implementation of an early alert system is one of the goals I have set for you. And there were four goals. Prior to that point I'd never heard of Starfish. And so it was all kind of new. But I took my charge and set on a mission to learn as much as I could about Starfish and early alert systems at Long Beach City College. And really the intention in looking at a platform like Starfish, the college was at a point where we knew we needed to do things very differently to serve students. And we needed to be much more intentional in how we did that.

0:08:30.3 ST: And so our focus was really being able to provide students just in time supports, and also to be able to streamline the ways in which students accessed resources and services. And so as I'm doing my research on Starfish, early alert and talking to folks at the college, I had learned that several years prior to my arrival, the college had actually implemented a homegrown early alert system and that system was not successful. And so, as you can imagine institutions have long memories. And so this was something that I knew I was going to have to sort of like lean into so that I could understand what had worked and what didn't work with that original effort. And so as I strategized, I began to talk to folks that were involved in that original effort, trying to get insight from them about maybe what were the things that had informed that effort, what had worked well, maybe what wasn't working well.

0:09:41.9 ST: And so that insight was really useful in us sort of road mapping, if you will, how we wanted to approach our implementation with Starfish. Another key part of the strategy was implementing a cross-functional team. And so spent some time deliberately identifying faculty, staff and administrators that could really help to inform the vision and the goals of our implementation of a technology platform like Starfish. And so this group talked through the needs of the campus and ultimately informed how we wanted to operationalize the work. And it's so interesting because I think at the time we were all really, really excited about the potential of Starfish and what it offered. I think sometimes we hope that there's gonna be this magical technology that's just gonna fix everything for us. And so as we met with our consultant and learned about all of the possibilities of Starfish, we had really lofty intentions, and had all kinds of tracking items and kudos and flags that we were gonna implement.

0:10:55.8 ST: And as we got closer to our implementation, we realized that we needed to scale back. There was a lot of potential with Starfish, but we didn't wanna go so big initially that it was going to create fear and apprehension among our constituency groups and in particular our faculty, like it was really, really important for us that we had buy-in from faculty. And so I think initially we start off with something like 24 tracking items that we had identified that we wanted to implement as part of a progress survey, and ultimately ended up landing on nine that we thought were the most essential as part of our first year pilot. And so the folks that are gonna be directly impacted by the work, it's so essential that we actually include them in the conversations about how can we reimagine these workflows?

0:11:50.3 ST: It was for us almost taking folks from kind of a paper process to a virtual process. And that requires that folks imagine the work a little bit differently, and sometimes that stretches folks in ways that makes them really uncomfortable. But we were prepared for the task and I think we were excited and really committed. And so as part of the implementation for us, it was also really important to have a lot of trainings with staff and faculty. It was important to demystify the technology. And as I said earlier, starting small was really helpful in being able to build confidence for folks that this was something that was not going to add work, but it was actually going to allow us to be more responsive to students' needs and it was going to improve efficiencies.

0:12:46.6 ST: And then I didn't mention this earlier, but this process for us was 18 months, and we were very focused on just implementing the early alert component of Starfish. So just the progress surveys. And even though we knew that Starfish had a lot of functionality and a lot of features that we could activate, we wanted to make sure that it was manageable, that we had some initial successes and some initial wins. So definitely the strategy in implementing Starfish was to lean into the experts on our campus. I was a new person to the campus, and so it was important that our journey be led by the folks that had a lot of institutional knowledge and could help us along the way.

0:13:39.4 EM: Wonderful. And Sonia, you kind of alluded to this, but with any student success technology like Starfish that gets implemented on a campus, it is in reality a tool that is being used by the practitioners, the counselors, the faculty, success coaches, students themselves. So it's really the people who are helping students to be successful with the aid of a platform like Starfish. For things like the early alerts that you mentioned, being able to flag students who might be at risk or raise referrals for students who need to go to a service like tutoring or financial aid. And then other functionality, of course, being able to create appointments, degree plans, analytics, all kinds of things. So when it comes to implementing a technology across campus, you already mentioned there are so many components that go into that because you've gotta be thinking about workflows behind the things that the technology can help drive. And so I'm curious, as Starfish was rolled out on campus and in the years that followed, what kind of challenges or pushback did you get with Starfish and the new workflows that were part of that?

0:14:54.9 ST: Yeah, that's a really important question, Emily, and I appreciate you asking that. I think I'm gonna focus on three pieces that come to mind. I mentioned this previously, but institutes have memory. And that memory sticks for a really long time. And so as I noted the people that were associated with past efforts to implement an early alert system had conceived of those efforts to be a failure. And so that initial buy-in was so critical and being able to lean in on the expertise of those who had been part of the implementation of that past system, and again, being able to tease out what worked and what didn't work was really important. That gave us critical insight that informed the Starfish implementation. And I think without having taken time to pause and really hear what folks had to say, we wouldn't be where we're at with our Starfish implementation.

0:15:56.2 ST: So first and foremost kind of understanding the historical context and the culture, I think those pieces of our institution are absolutely essential as we consider implementations. And certainly that was a challenge we had to address. And then I think with any new technology that we implement, there is the fear of added work. As I said, we had to do a lot of work to really imagine what the workflows were going to be in this new virtual space. And so not only did we have to be intentional to identify who were the folks that were gonna be impacted by these workflows, but we also had to be intentional to create space so that we can have dialogue around the workflows and get feedback and ensure folks that we were committed to incorporating that feedback.

0:16:54.6 ST: So initially we might've started with some conceptualization of a workflow, and then as we got feedback, we ended up in a completely different place, but we landed there together. And I think that that's important. And so because folks were able to inform the workflows, we were able to assure them and demonstrate that this wasn't going to be more work, it was actually going to be less work because it was going to allow us to lean into some efficiencies. As I noted previously, we were sort of moving at the pace of being able to move paper physically from one space to another. And so I think that people were assured that it wasn't gonna be more work. It was actually going to be more responsive. It was gonna allow us to get students to the resources more quickly.

0:17:44.8 ST: And then I think coupled with just institutional memory and added work is the idea of buy-in. And ultimately it was important to get buy-in from students, from staff, from faculty. And so part of how we attended to that buy-in was creating campaigns as part of the deployment of our implementation, we offered trainings, we had ongoing meetings. And so that campaign, it's really important to be able to create a narrative around what Starfish is and what it's not right. And ensuring that there is a consistent message that every single constituency group member is delivering around Starfish. And so that I think went a long way as well in being able to get buy-in. And then at the end of the day, anytime you're implementing technology, you don't implement and just sort of let it run. Challenges are always going to emerge. And so implementing technology is an iterative process. The only way that we're going to be able to ensure that we continue to attend to not only the challenges that initially came up, but any new challenges that present as we continue to move forward.

0:19:08.0 EM: I love that. And that's a really great point about how any technology that you implement really is an iterative process. There's so much more beyond the launch of a technology on campus. And I think during implementations, so many schools are focused on getting the platform live, right? And having the training done and making sure everyone understands what's happening and how it will be used, and then not thinking about what comes after that. How are we going to continue to manage this platform and expand and optimize. So I love that you touched on that. Now Esteban, what was your role in all of this, and what were some of the initial challenges that you encountered along the way?

0:19:46.8 EA: Yes, thank you, Emily. I think for us, my role was as the FYE director on Title V to ensure that we were utilizing the system to move our students forward as it relates to persistence, retention and completion of other educational goals. And while we had an infrastructure of Starfish, we didn't really have a program that bought into using the tool. And so I remember, the early stages meeting with Sonia and making sure that, hey, why don't we use FYE? I think it's gonna be an amazing opportunity. And so we decided to do that. We decided to use FYE as a pilot program to really pilot all these functionalities. And so we were willing to do the work. And I remember we were using Starfish Early Alert, but we were not really using the case management tool, and that's what we came in.

0:20:36.3 EA: And so I remember the early challenges where having to reimagine how we did our business processes, we had to move from that really massive Excel sheet to this essentially new virtual system. And so trying to replicate that functionality that we had on Excel into this system was challenging. It conceptually makes sense, but when we actually do it in practice, a lot of our staff faculty, we needed to build their confidence that, yes, we'd be doing this for years, but once we move into this, it's gonna be so much better. And so I remember having to train the staff, teaching them about the software and really making people feel confident and comfortable with the software.

0:21:18.9 EM: Wonderful. Now, as you were working with the first year experience program, how did you prioritize what to do first with what to use in Starfish?

0:21:29.6 EA: Yeah, that's a great question, Emily. I think for us, first of all, we needed to identify and hire the right staff. I think having the dean and the director as the Starfish administrators was one thing, but really having the folks that were going to be doing that day-to-day operation was very important. So one of the things that we did here at Long Beach City College was to hire Starfish Counseling Coordinators in a part-time basis. They were leading a lot of the efforts of the project. We did hire a team of coaches, student success coaches that would report to the Starfish Counseling Coordinators, faculty coordinators, to lead a lot of the day-to-day operations. We also identified some participating areas. As I mentioned, FYE was one of the big pilot programs, but we did ask other areas that if they wanted to participate when we were raising those flags.

0:22:20.2 EA: And so once we identified the critical folks, we would then set up meetings to set up different objectives. So I remember meeting with our IT department, making sure that we had our business system analysts in place, making sure that we had those meetings with Starfish, with our consultant to make sure that we were meeting on a biweekly basis. And really, once we had that, we also had weekly meetings with the operations team at Long Beach where we needed to set up what are the roles for the staff, what are the organizations that we're gonna build, the relationships within the system. We needed to do some training for the coaches. And the coaches were also, as we were building the system they were also testing the system, we were trying to also create a lot of training materials.

0:23:08.7 EA: So we utilized Canvas on our college so we could actually provide all these training materials to our staff so they could use that. Within this, the way we organized ourselves, we utilized SharePoint and we created a whole SharePoint site location where we would build our business processes, different workflows. We actually added more trainings in there. We would also meet with different areas one-on-one to tell them about the system and how they could utilize the system. But really the order operations of, like I mentioned, was to build out this team first, hire the appropriate staff to help us with the project and really grab the case management model that we had on Excel and literally plug that into the system. So, that was really the first thing we needed to do. So identify those attributes, identify those fields within our systems so that we could plug those into Starfish.

0:23:57.0 EA: And once we had that, we were looking at different enhancements on the system. Like we mentioned earlier, we were using the early alert for many years, but we didn't really utilize the case management until then. And so we built the attributes which are different milestones and metrics that students mostly hitting along the way. We created our success plans once we had everything in the system. And then after that, we built some students self raise flags. One of the things that I really love about the system was that once we had the attributes plugged into Starfish, we were able to create automation of the flags. So students were getting flags for a lot of the matriculation steps. We had, for example, orientation, financial aid, the assessment if they're missing units. And so this automation was raising flags, sending out an email, sending out a text message, but also once the student would complete that item, the system would automatically close it.

0:24:52.5 EA: So we really reimagined the way in which our student success coaches did the work. Before they were doing all of this manually on the Excel sheet, but now we are utilizing the software more as a client management system where we had filters, we could send out emails in the masses. And so we really enjoyed that whole process, and I think that was the only way we were able to serve almost 5,000 students within the FYE program. And that was the only way for us to go to scale.

0:25:22.4 EM: Incredible. So the case management piece was really key to getting into place to be able to streamline those processes, automate a lot of the processes, and you all did amazing work with that. I was able to be your consultant during that time, [laughter] so seeing the improvements there was just incredible. Now, Sonia, what were some of the early experiences... Well, Sonia or Estaban, what were some of the early experiences or feedback you got after working on this overhaul, of your initial Starfish setup to let you know that you were on the right path?

0:26:04.1 ST: That's a great question... And, I think just for context, I want to acknowledge where we're at now is fully utilizing the progress surveys. We did a test run of success plans. We are doing case management with using the attributes. We have activated self raised flags for students. And, I think that there's a lot of different functionality that we're leveraging in Starfish, and so it's certainly important for us to be able to get feedback to ensure that we're headed in the right direction. So I would say, first and foremost from the start, we were getting positive feedback from faculty and staff. And I would say this was especially true for instructional faculty. They were noticing that students were getting to resources more quickly.

0:27:11.5 ST: And also that there was a dedicated point of contact. And I think this is absolutely paramount for a successful implementation of an early alert system. I think it's difficult to get buy-in if folks don't know that there's someone on the other end that is going to be receiving that information and activating on it. And so being able to get that initial feedback from the faculty where they were saying, "We're seeing students get to resources, we're seeing that there's changes in the classroom." For some of our faculty there were even changes in their course success rates. And so I think that instilled confidence in the system and the direction that we wanted to move. And I will say that over the last several years, we have seen noticeable increases in faculty usage and student usage of Starfish.

0:28:15.5 ST: So I think those are good data points as well for us to lean into. And then, so speaking of data, we saw some initial gains as I noted, so we knew that we were onto something good. So speaking of first year experience specifically, we saw that there were increases in the completion of transfer level math and English. So more students were enrolling in their first year in transfer level math, in transfer level English, and also completing those courses. We saw initial increases in persistence, not only from fall to spring, but also fall to fall. Students were completing more units and more transferable units. And so we know that those are leading indicators of student success outcomes. And then, also getting feedback from students is really important.

0:29:15.7 ST: And, we surveyed students and they indicated that the nudges that they were receiving from the dedicated staff and faculty were particularly helpful in activating action. And I think this is an important piece. So the way we've set up Starfish at Long Beach City College is faculty and staff can activate on behalf of a student, but students can also activate on for themselves. And I think that's particularly important because it empowers students to make choices based on where they're at in their educational journey. Esteban, do you wanna talk about any of our FYE students who have now transferred in the ways in which that has impacted them?

0:30:10.7 EA: Yes, totally. I think for us, we would for FYE, leveraging Starfish led to really big significant gains. Like Sonia mentioned, we did see an increase in term to term persistence to those FYE affiliated students. Along the way, we have decreased the racial ethnic equity gaps within FYE, and also we have seen the increased program efficiencies. And so just to put things in perspective, our 21/22 cohort, we had about 4,500 students and about 80% of those persisted from terms of trim. Well, when we look at non FYE students, they were in the low 60s. And so we definitely have seen a lot of huge impact utilizing this platform. As Sonia mentioned, as relates to math, about 85% of our students in the FYE program completed that transfer level math.

0:31:00.8 EA: When we look specifically to our Latinx students, about 83% for transfer level math, we also saw similar gains with English. About 85% of our FYE students completed transfer level English, specifically for Latinx, we saw about at 89%. So it's really high numbers. When we look at our, when we're evaluating our completion of transferable units, it's about a 61% of FYE students that are completing those 15 transferable units. And then something very amazing that we have is we do have an automation for students that are missing the comprehensive educational plan. So that flags goes in and out depending on when they get it done. And as a result of that, we have seen that 75% attainment rate of students completing that comprehensive educational plan. And just to put the things in perspective, that was for 21/22 cohort, which about, we have about 4,800 students.

0:31:52.5 EA: And so 75% of them received a comprehensive ed plan, which is huge for a really large program. Things that have impacted students along the way, because of this, we are able to now focus on different things, right? The system is doing a lot of work for us. And so now we're utilizing that personal touch to focus on that sense of belonging with our students and really making them feel more comfortable and connected to the campus. Once we feel connected with them, then they come to all of our academic workshops and all the academics. As a result of all of this, our program has been nominated for many awards. For example, the Seal Excelencia was one of them. So I'm really grateful for that.

0:32:31.8 EM: Those are amazing numbers. I've heard you all share that data before and it never gets old. The work that the two of you and the team at the Long Beach is doing to support students is just incredible. So Sonia, what's next for Long Beach in terms of providing holistic supports to students? And what advice would you offer to other leaders who are wanting to make a measurable impact on student success?

0:33:01.3 ST: Well, as Esteban noted, I think that FYE has provided us a great roadmap for how we can scale these types of efforts to all students at Long Beach City College. And so over the last year, we have been working with colleagues across the campus in leveraging the insight from the roadmap that FYE has created on how they've used Starfish to, our student success teams. And so really that's an opportunity for us to be able to provide just-in-time holistic, curated support for all of our students affiliated and unaffiliated. And I think ultimately that is the heart of equity work, right? When we identify great strategies that promote student success, that promote sense of belonging, we want to be able to figure out how do we do that for everyone? And I think that really gets at the heart and mission of what we're trying to do as community colleges in transforming lives and promoting success.

0:34:05.0 ST: And so we also wanna get more programs onto Starfish, beyond just those in student services so that there is much broader impact that we're able to have when we're all utilizing the same platform. And I would say, ultimately for other institutions that are looking to do something like this, it's important to reflect. For us what's been critical in our journey is to identify where it is that we wanna go, reflect on where we've been. And each year we take the time and the effort to look at our data and identify new goals. I said this earlier, you can't stagnate. You have to constantly be iterating. And I think that's important part of this process, so that you can stay fresh and stay responsive to the needs of your students.

0:35:05.0 EM: Well, Sonia and Esteban, it has been so wonderful to talk to the two of you today. Thank you for sharing all of the amazing work that you and that your team is doing at Long Beach City College to support your students. And thank you so much for your time.

0:35:19.9 ST: Thank you, Emily.

0:35:21.5 EA: Yeah, thank you Emily, for this great opportunity.


0:35:28.7 Outro: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we hear from a higher ed leader who recently led an academic realignment effort that has to date generated more than $5 million in cost savings, and that has enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reaction from students, staff and faculty. Until next week, thank you for your time.

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