How Leaders Can Create a Space for Student Success

By Ellen Ullman

A Q&A with the president behind Austin Community College’s ACCelerator model.

Austin Community College’s ACCelerator, on the Highland campus, is a one-year-old, 32,000-square-foot learning lab that houses more than 600 desktop computer stations, classrooms, and study rooms. The campus is the first phase of the college’s Highland Redevelopment Project, and the ACCelerator is located in a former JC Penney store at Highland Mall.

The former shopping mall is now a modern, glass-filled, collaborative space, where faculty members host classes and small-group meetings, tutors and academic coaches provide assistance, and learners of all stripes get together for formal and informal sessions.

We recently chatted with Austin Community College President and CEO Richard Rhodes about the ACCelerator’s successful first year.

The ACCelerator was developed as a way to improve developmental math. Did you have any idea what it could become?

When we were in the design phase, I knew it had potential, but now that we are more than one full year in, it’s amazing to see its full potential. I was there this morning, and almost all of the 604 computer stations were in use, and faculty and tutors were roaming around, answering questions.

We originally thought it would be for developmental math, but faculty from other disciplines have gotten so interested in the learning concept and delivery method that they are jumping on board and asking to have their courses offered in the ACCelerator delivery model. Motion graphics, computer programming, and developmental reading and writing are all being offered in there, as well as adult education courses. It is so rewarding to see the enthusiasm of our faculty and students.

As word of the ACCelerator spreads among students, without us doing any advertising, the number of unique students who use the ACCelerator continues to grow. It’s amazing!

What does it take to complete a project of this size?

You have to have a visionary and supportive board of trustees. It will take some financial commitment to do something of this magnitude, and you need a board that accepts the mistakes, supports the efforts and makes sure the community knows how important it is. You also need faculty and staff to feel ownership by helping develop it and promote it. From an administrative/leadership standpoint, it means providing the support, the data and the information necessary to create a compelling case of why we need change.

Can you share some of the ACCelerator’s successes?

We’ve cut the attrition rate that is typical of developmental math from 35 or 40 percent down to 10 percent. That alone is substantial, but we’re also closing the equity gap among our students. The traditional success rate in developmental math for white students was 72 percent, 62 percent for Hispanic students, and 52 percent for African-American students. Today, white students are at 83 percent, Hispanic students are at 79 percent, and African-American students are at 78 percent.

The ACCelerator is more than just a place to take developmental math, though. It’s an environment where collaborative learning and student-to-student support is thriving. At a recent panel, students were talking about how the faculty at the ACCelerator helped motivate them, how the tutors assisted them, and about the strong sense of collegiality they felt with their fellow students. One student — a young Hispanic boy — talked about how he was placed into the lowest level of developmental math, struggled, and didn’t see any way to be successful. Through the ACCelerator, another student tutored him, and he has now finished three levels of developmental math and two levels of developmental reading and writing in one year. Now he wants to be an engineer.

Is the ACCelerator replicable?

Yes! It has to be intentional and have all of the supports I mentioned earlier: trustees, administrative team, faculty, community. You have to roll it out in a fashion in which everyone understands the sense of urgency, because you provided the data and made the compelling case.

Even if you can’t open a 32,000-square-foot ACCelerator, you can repurpose a couple of classrooms for a 75-student ACCelerator. Regardless of the size, it can be replicated. This is our first and our largest, but we have 11 campuses. We don’t want everyone to come to this ACCelerator; traffic in Austin is bad enough. Our intent is to build one for every new campus and renovate existing buildings to create an ACCelerator space of some sort.

As long as you provide the right environment, you’ll find the pioneer faculty who will champion it.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

I don’t think so. We had the support of the trustees and some math faculty, who became champions early on. The administration was 100 percent behind it. Maybe I’d have been more optimistic. This has far exceeded my greatest expectations.

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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