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South Arkansas Community College Beefs Up Communications To Support At-Risk Students

South Arkansas Community College (SouthArk) has begun using services from Starfish Retention Solutions to help in its efforts to identity at-risk students and facilitate communication between faculty and advisors who are addressing retention challenges. The college has licensed usage of both Starfish Early Alert and Starfish Connect, though the first service is its primary focus to start.

SouthArk is a public two-year institution providing educational programs and services to a diverse population from across the Delta region. The college has about 1,300 students, many taking adult basic education and general educational development (GED) courses.

In 2007 Murphy Oil, a company based in El Dorado, the hometown of SouthArk, introduced El Dorado Promise, a scholarship program that pays for all El Dorado High School graduates who have been at the school since at least the ninth grade to attend any college in the country. SouthArk has become one the largest recipients of El Dorado Promise students and has had record enrollment increases.

"With El Dorado Promise, students in the area are realizing that their dreams can now happen, which is really exciting," said Cathy Harrell, academic advisor for SouthArk. "We are just starting to see the first wave of these students come into the college classroom. At the same time, we are now seeing a lot of students who aren't as prepared for college-level material, particularly with their reading, writing, and study skills. We want to make sure that these students achieve their goals."

SouthArk is using Starfish Early Alert to track key indicators of at-risk students. For example, when a student is absent for a few days, a faculty member can raise a flag that notifies the academic advisor and retention coordinator.

"Our previous process for tracking repeat absences required that faculty members complete a form in triplicate and send it through interoffice mail to the admissions office, who put the notice into the system, which auto-generated a letter to the student," said Terry Patterson, director of distance education. "By the time this process took place, the student was often so far behind that it was difficult for us to get him or her re-engaged in the classroom. With Starfish, this process happens almost instantaneously."

Staff can also use the system to communicate when possible student-life interference (such as a transportation problem) is identified or if a student presents signs of having the potential to inflict self-harm or to harm others. In addition, the system will automatically communicate concerns when a student's grade average drops below a C.

Users access the software through a link in Blackboard, the college's course management system. From there, they can flag a student for monitoring or, through Starfish Connect, invite the student to schedule an appointment or direct the student to the appropriate support resources. They can also use the programs to keep notes about their interactions with the student and to share these securely with other faculty and advisors.

"The key to successfully introducing any new process is making it easy--easy to access and easy to use. Starfish meets these criteria by being right inside Blackboard--right where faculty are every day," said Patterson. "If, for example, an instructor learns that a student is concerned about finding daycare, we want the instructor to be able to quickly communicate this to the advising staff. An advisor is best positioned to help the student overcome the challenge and remain in school. Starfish makes this communications process simple."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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