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Close up view of a group discussion.

Relationships: Crucial Fuel for Change

June 13, 2018|By Heather Ortiz

I believe we are at a turning point in the mathematics pathways movement. 

Research continues to show that math pathways lead to improvements for students in higher education. It is critical that institutions across the country implement mathematics pathways, and I’m thrilled to have a job where I get to work intensely with two- and four-year institutions to help them through this process. 

Just a few years ago, however, I was deep in the weeds of implementing math pathways on my own campus. 

In September 2014, I was invited by my community college president to attend a New Mathways Project Institute. At the time, I was the director of developmental studies for reading, writing, and mathematics, and a full-time reading and writing instructor at Ranger College, one of the oldest public two-year colleges in Texas. 

I’d been at Ranger for 3 years, and I saw firsthand the challenges that our underprepared students faced in developmental mathematics—and their limited success in introductory college-level mathematics courses. I had hoped that the institute would offer clear solutions for ways to help our students at Ranger succeed and persist in higher education. 

It did.

After the institute, the vice president of instruction and I were excited to begin implementing mathematics pathways. We eagerly defined our charge and planned a meeting to discuss the initiative with a group of cross-institutional stakeholders—all the department chairs, the dean of student affairs, the director of the TRIO program, lead tutors, and the dean of enrollment. 

Only a few people showed up to our initial meeting. We were puzzled. Why didn’t these stakeholders see math pathways as exciting and important—the way we did?

Lesson #1: Relationships Matter

It became clear that I needed to talk with each stakeholder, so I set up as series of one-on-one meetings. 

My first conversation was with a lead math faculty member, who knew about math pathways. While they had no objections to the initiative, I quickly discovered why they didn’t attend that initial meeting— I had unintentionally created a few hurt feelings when we “math department outsiders” convened a college-wide group to transform their department without their leadership or input. 

Uh oh. 

Though I was the administrator overseeing developmental reading, writing, and mathematics, I was not a math faculty member. I was not the expert, and I had failed to ensure this new initiative was math faculty–driven. 

This was a huge learning moment for me. I needed to make sure that implementing math pathways on our campus was led by the people with the deepest expertise: the math faculty.

Lesson #2: Relationships Drive Engagement

After repairs to our relationship, we moved forward together and continued to meet one-on-one with additional stakeholders to make the case for implementing math pathways at our college.

Learning from initial challenges and taking the necessary time to meet in person with each cross-institutional stakeholder paid off. In those one-on-one meetings, we built strong relationships that enabled us to launch our math pathways implementation just three months later. 

We faced many challenges through this process, including:

  • Aligning recommended mathematics courses to programs of study;
  • Developing an academic advising process and support resources for student enrollment in the right math pathway;
  • Redesigning the developmental mathematics course sequence to support students pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and non-STEM fields, including co-requisite remediation; and
  • Reallocating funds to hire new mathematics faculty to teach newly developed mathematics courses.

Facing these challenges alone would have been impossible, but together we discovered how to navigate them.

Lesson #3: Relationships Pave the Way Forward

Our one-on-one meetings had strengthened our relationships with one another. Together, we then collectively redefined a unified institutional charge and goals. We established a leadership team and an advisory team. We drew from each other’s expertise to improve student success. 

Math pathways implementation at Ranger College began succeeding for one main reason: relationships. 

The cross-institutional relationships we developed were essential to transforming our small, rural community college into a dynamic learning environment focused on student success.

Lesson #4: Relationships Fuel Successful Systemic Change

Today, students at Ranger College can take rigorous, challenging gateway mathematics courses that are aligned to their program of study and, more importantly, relevant to their career and academic goals. The multiple math pathways at Ranger College and accelerated supports for underprepared students empower ALL students to complete their gateway math course in one year or less.

Now, as I guide other two- and four-year institutions through the implementation process through my work at the Dana Center, I make sure they understand the power of relationships. Lasting systemic change cannot happen with one person acting alone. It needs the support and expertise of many to be successful.

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About the Author

Heather Ortiz

My passion for education began in sixth grade through my experiences with a caring, passionate teacher, Mrs. Ivie. After high school, I attended Eastfield Community College, in Mesquite, Texas. As a first-generation college student with limited financial resources and family support, I was embraced by Eastfield’s faculty and staff, who encouraged, supported, and pushed me to pursue my educational goals.