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Best Practices to Engage Students Virtually from DC-CAP Leaders

Monday, June 8, 2020  
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By Lindsey Barclay, Member Services Manager, and Jamese Carrell, Member Services Associate

When the coronavirus outbreak struck, the team at the District of Columbia College Access Program (widely known as DC-CAP) worked harder than ever to transition their programming to the virtual environment. For the past few months, they have been meeting the emerging needs of students and their families and leveraging partnerships in service to students navigating uncertainty.

LD Ross, Jr., senior vice president of programs, and DaRonna Jones, senior program manager – charter schools, at DC-CAP shared how they have adapted to continue providing support and services to students and families.

NCAN: How have you implemented your programs and services differently during the pandemic?

DC-CAP: The pandemic was a shock and DC-CAP leaders, and advisers had to pivot quickly to ensure students could continue accessing support. To some degree, our program was already computer-based but we needed to be strategic about implementing a more wide-scale redesign of our programming, especially during such an uncertain time. In the past several weeks, we have leveraged virtual platforms to provide virtual college tours, field trips, tutoring, life skills and readiness workshops, and college access advising.

Through one of our many programs, the STEM Incentive and Scholarship Program (SISP), students benefit from tutoring on algebra, geometry, biology, and chemistry on Mondays through Thursdays and have opportunities to participate in field trips centered on STEM. Moreover, students can earn financial incentives for their SISP participation and use that funding to cover some of their postsecondary education costs.

What resources and partnerships have you leveraged to provide virtual programming?

In terms of technology, we have found it helpful to use platforms with which students are already familiar. Many students were already familiar with Microsoft Teams as their schools use it as a communication method. We have also leveraged Zoom (enabling access via passwords to ensure security), text messages, phone calls, and social media to engage with students. This summer, we look forward to continuing our partnership with Signal Vine, made possible through our NCAN membership. The texting campaign will help us nudge students throughout the summer to combat summer melt. This year, we will include messaging related to COVID-19, as we are mindful of the new landscape our students are navigating. Similarly, we are looking to implement a texting campaign for college sophomores to encourage them to continue their postsecondary journeys.

Given students’ schedules have been changed now that they are learning remotely, our team has made adjustments to our work days to ensure advisers are available when students are available. We find many students are most available during the evening hours and advisers work outside of the typical work day to provide advising support and programming in the evenings.

As an example of our adjusted programming, we have redesigned components of our University Partnership Program with Delaware State University, George Mason University, SUNY Oswego, and UMass Lowell to enable students and their families to participate in virtual orientation events from 6-8 p.m. There have been upwards of 50 participants at each event, and attendees are able to engage with college staff members and learn about the campus, academics, and programs.

How are you connecting with students who are hard to reach?

We have been monitoring students’ engagement since mid-March and taking note of the students with whom we haven’t connected. Our team gathered to brainstorm and based on knowledge that our students spend some of their time on social media, we have created opportunities to provide programming on platforms like Instagram Live. During these sessions, students learn and ask questions about topics like the FAFSA, the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program, and upcoming events. We have developed a social media protocol and use trusted adult facilitators with whom students are familiar to ensure these virtual spaces are safe for students and remain focused on college access. We have seen engagement increase as students learn that we are available, in several different ways, to provide support.

As the pandemic continues, students and families are facing many uncertainties. What has the response been?

We have seen students and their families responding to fear, concern, and stress. Some have family members who have contracted the coronavirus. There is concern, understandably, for their health, including the need to care for oneself and other loved ones. In instances of unemployment or underemployment, students are taking on jobs or taking on additional hours at their jobs to provide support for their families. We have been flexible and supportive of students who are facing so much.

Students are also reconsidering their postsecondary plans, for some of the aforementioned reasons, and because of concern about their wellness if they were to attend classes in-person in the fall. Also, students are considering the most cost-effective options given affordability is increasingly critical as many families are experiencing financial strain. The DC-CAP team has been working diligently to provide advising to students that addresses their concerns and needs. That advising has included exploring community college options, as courses are more affordable. Additionally, advisers are ensuring each student is able to complete the verification process to secure federal and institutional funding, access DCTAG funding, and apply for scholarship opportunities.

What advice do you have for practitioners who have transitioned/are transitioning their programming and support to the virtual environment?

We highly recommend the following:

  • Engage parents and family members as partners. As we’ve known for many years, families are instrumental in connecting students with support and encouraging them along their journeys. It is especially important now.
  • Be flexible, especially with students and families. Now is such an unpredictable and stressful time. Adjust your expectations and lead with your heart as you conduct outreach and provide support.
  • Be persistent. In the same way we expect students to be resilient in the face of difficulty, we can do the same by doubling down on our commitment to college attainment and maximizing every opportunity to guide students in accessing and navigating postsecondary pathways. We acknowledge it is challenging work as we make every effort to continue it.

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