Words of Wisdom from NCAN 20th Plenary Speakers

October 5, 2015

Bill DeBaun, Amina Anderson Pringle, and Carrie Warick 

Attendees at the 20th Anniversary NCAN Conference in Orlando, FL, experienced a wide variety of informative and moving speakers, including a panel of NCAN founding member alumni, a speech that brought everyone to their feet with a challenge to make the impossible inevitable from Miami-Dade County public schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, and big announcements about the SAT (a new app will help with test prep) and the CSS profile (students with application fee waivers will now automatically receive a profile waiver too) from College Board president David Coleman. 

Dr. Felicia Williams, Valencia College

“The college is how the students experience us, not how we experience them,” said Dr. Felicia Williams, President of Valencia College’s West Campus, in her remarks that opened up NCAN’s plenary last Monday. This vision plays into a number of strategies for student success at the central Florida institution serving nearly 60,000 students. Dr. Williams noted that students are more likely to be successful if they “feel safe, welcome, and acknowledged; are both challenged and supported academically; [and] have a plan for completion.” This belief is a change from what Dr. Williams sees as a history of institutions not taking responsibility for student success; instead, Valencia attempts to help students “break the code” so that students know what they need to succeed. Valencia serves many first-generation students but doesn’t treat them as a “widget.” Instead, student success is a fundamental element of the campus culture, and this is borne out in policies like not allowing for late registration so that students are engaged from step one of their course experience. Policies like this, along with the campus’s aforementioned guiding philosophy, have helped students find postsecondary success.

Founding Member Alumni Panel

Four alumni of founding NCAN members joined on the conference plenary stage to share what they learned and their advice for members and students. Victor Ruiz (College Now Greater Cleveland), Jermaine Bromell (Philadelphia Education Fund), Gwen S. Green (ACCESS College Foundation), and Nancy Poon Lue (uAspire) all agreed that their advisor was the most impactful part of participating in a college access program. In addition, they learned confidence, financial aid terminology, and about standardized tests and college visits from their program participation. These four alumni also all still participate in at least one college access program as adults, either as board members, volunteers, or mentors. They stressed that it's important for students to see what "people like me" made it through college and are now successful. When asked to give advice to members, one panelist said that they thank you may not come tomorrow or next year, but advisors and staff should know that students remember their names. When asked what they would tell today's students, the alumni said to believe in yourself, dream big, self-advocate, learn from mistakes, and know that college can transform whole families.

Jamienne S. Studley, Deputy Under Secretary of the US Department of Education

U.S. Department of Education Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley featured on Tuesday morning. Declaring that NCAN is a “trade association of saints,” she noted that “saints are also activists for change.” In that same vein, Deputy Under Secretary Studley declared that “no organization was a more steadfast supporter of, or saw more value in, the college scorecard than NCAN” and its members. Recent policy developments, including the release of the aforementioned college scorecard and the move to prior-prior year FAFSA, will keep the department and the college access field busy in the next year, admitted Studley, but she noted that it will ultimately be worth it. Studley called for grassroots community and state efforts to get policy, nonprofit, and education partners together to collaborate on solutions to problems facing students. She also called on NCAN members’ “next thing” should be getting students and their families to use the tools available to them and to serve more “post-traditional” students.

Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools

“From the impossible to the inevitable, in the journey from words to actions, there’s a lot to be done,” declared Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Alberto M. Carvalho during his lunch plenary address. A nationally recognized expert on education transformation and finance who has successfully elevated his district’s academic profile and streamlined its business operations and financial systems, Mr. Carvalho drew on his experiences both personal, overcoming significant life challenges, and professional, leading the fourth largest district in the United States, to argue that it takes persistence and willpower to effect change. “If you wait for the right time to make systemic change, you will never get to it,” said Carvalho. He also noted that the systems serving students shouldn’t reflect on those students: “I have never met a broken child; I have observed broken systems.” 

Carvalho stressed that leadership matters when it comes to improving education, stating that “too many talk about it and not enough are doing it.” His leadership approach has included retaining teachers who are effective at and energetic and passionate for promoting student success. He has also created a number of magnet schools and increased access to AP and IB programs in an effort to expand pathways and opportunities for the students the district serves. “Miami Dade is a snapshot of tomorrow’s America,” said Carvalho. The approaches he and his team have enacted have improved services for students in the district that need it most, which is a practice other districts will ideally also replicate. 

David Coleman, President of the College Board

"We don't need more tests, we need more opportunity," said David Coleman, president of the College Board to NCAN attendees. This may not be what many expected to hear from the head of the organization that owns the SAT, but Coleman said the mission for the College Board is to drive many more students to equity and excellence, not be a maintainer of testing instruments. As part of this approach, the College Board is launching a new SAT in 2016 that will return to reading and math sections only, and both will focus on ideas students learned in the classroom and see every day. Mr. Coleman said, "it is not okay to tell a young person to study something because it is on a test." 

Coleman is leading the College Board to focus on helping low-income students have the same opportunities of their higher income peers. When discussing high price test-prep services, Coleman said it may not be College Board's fault it is so costly, but it certainly is their problem. This is why College Board partnered with Khan Academy to offer free test-prep training online. Further, during his speech, Coleman announced a new app that will allow students to take a practice, paper SAT test and have it scored for free simply by taking a photo of their answer sheet. In other big news, Coleman announced that the College Board will automatically give CSS profile fee waivers to any students who quality for application fee waivers.

To learn more about the plenary speakers, read their bios.

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