Following the I-BEST Model

By Ellen Ullman

How to replicate a teaching model that produces skilled workers.

The Alamo Colleges district, in Texas, recently won the Bellwether Award for its Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program, which provides free workforce training in addition to social services and remedial education.

What makes the I-BEST program, started in 2010 and inspired by a Washington state program, so successful? “One thing we focus on is employer engagement,” says Melissa Sadler-Nitu, I-BEST director at the Alamo Colleges. “Lots of businesses move here because of the low cost of living and find an unskilled population. When we build our career pathways and I-BEST programs, we zero in on the high-demand and living-wage occupations.”

Sadler-Nitu and her team look at job openings in both new and existing companies and make sure the colleges can produce skilled employees to suit that demand. “Lots of colleges have nice, shiny labs but don’t make the connection to an actual job,” she says. “We won’t put anything together if there’s no job at the other end.”

Reaching high-needs students

Many I-BEST programs focus on developmental education. Alamo’s program lets students gain job skills without first completing developmental education or a GED.

“Our candidates are deficient in at least one area below eighth grade, and many have not completed a GED, need to learn English, or both,” says Sadler-Nitu. “That’s why we have multiple entry and exit points in our programs. It’s based on the idea that a student achieves an academic level, goes to work, comes back for more school, and then goes back to work — a true pathway of stackable credentials.”

Over the years, Alamo has tried different approaches to deliver the contextualized content that makes up the I-BEST program. Currently, the content is partially integrated, which means that the adult-education instructor meets regularly with the continuing-education or college-career instructor to discuss the I-BEST student’s challenges. The adult-education instructor does not tutor or assist with the CTE instruction — he or she is looking for ways to help a student improve in areas of deficiency.

Surpassing the obstacles

One of the largest challenges has been funding the I-BEST program. Sadler-Nitu says it’s hard to produce whole numbers instead of projected numbers because she has to break down multiple data systems that come from braided funding sources. And I-BEST is expensive because of all of the support it includes — support that requires multiple funding sources.

“We haven’t completely figured out the braided funding system, but the problem is that our institutional accounting systems are not nimble enough to cleanly manipulate different funding streams,” she says.

Colleges may consider braided funding to be high risk; however, an I-BEST program can take grant funding to a new level as it supports an academic system. “Braided funding with grants is a sustainable way to support career pathways, and that changes the game entirely. We have trained for a skill set in I-BEST that we can’t afford to lose each time a grant ends.”

Additional lessons learned

First and foremost, Sadler-Nitu says, I-BEST requires strong leadership at the top, particularly in light of the funding challenges.

Another thing the Alamo Colleges have learned is the importance of the career navigator position. “It’s not just about partnerships — it’s about an actual integration of services,” she says. A career navigator is not the same as an adviser. A career navigator has three functions: to advise, to manage cases, and to understand the adult-education system.

“Our career navigator sees about 60 students per semester, while advisers can meet with upwards of 300. Be clear about the differences between the two jobs, and remember that the navigator needs training in specific skills. No one person has all these skill sets.”

Last but not least, don’t try to start an I-BEST program without a grant writer and a forensic accountant.

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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