New Higher Ed faculty's research examines community colleges' strengths, challenges

UNT may be a four-year research university, but it has a long-running dedication to community colleges. The UNT College of Education is home to the Bill J. Priest Center, named for the founding and longtime chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District.  The UNT College of Education also offers doctoral programs in Higher Education, which enroll many community college administrators seeking to advance within their institutions. Alumni of the program include leaders at many North Texas community college campuses, and are known across the state for their expertise.

Now, the UNT community college team has a new member, whose research dives into the role of community colleges as important sites for credential completion, civic engagement and strengthening our democracy.

Cliff Harbour came to UNT from the University of Wyoming and before that worked at Colorado State University. Early in his career, he was an academic dean at a community college in Durham, North Carolina. Harbour is excited to be in Texas, however, a state that he calls “an exceptional place for higher education.”

“In our business, people say there are two places to be if you want to work in a large, complex, growing higher education sector: Texas and California. In both states, public and private institutions range from open-access community colleges to research universities with international reputations. It’s all here,” he said.

And, Harbour added, “Texans really take pride in higher education, so that brings an appreciation for the work we do, but higher expectations as well.  And this is good.” 

Harbour’s current research projects focus on the Completion Agenda, community college civic engagement programs, and developing a stronger normative vision for community college education.

 The Completion Agenda

The Completion Agenda is a nationwide effort to increase graduation rates, especially in higher education. 

“Every college or university would like to improve its graduation rates,” Harbour said, “but this is especially important at community colleges.” 

Completion rates at community colleges are relatively low – lower than those reported for four-year colleges and universities. 

“But, there’s a reason for this,” Harbour said. “Traditionally, community colleges had a mission of access, and their role was to provide an open door to high school graduates without regard to their grade point average (GPA) or standardized test scores (e.g., SAT, ACT).” 

So, to attract these students and working adults and those who did not move on to full-time university study, community colleges offered courses day, night and weekends, and the tuition was affordable. For decades, community colleges were leaders in providing adults with new higher education opportunities, either in occupational fields or in university transfer programs. Today, however, community colleges must do more than provide access. 

“And we all get that,” Harbour said. “The challenge community colleges face now is how to improve graduation rates without decreasing access.” 

Harbour’s first strand of research is grounded on a critical analysis of leading completion reforms to assess where there are gaps in addressing student needs. 

There is a lot of important research available on community college rates, he said. This work, however, is grounded in the disciplines supporting it. 

“This isn’t a bad thing” Harbour said, “it just recognizes that different social sciences bring their own conceptual and methodological limitations, and educators must synthesize this work to make it more accessible for practitioners.”

Harbour, a former community college dean, noted that, “Community college leaders want programs and practices that they can use tomorrow, and the best research is not always presented in a form that facilitates this work. So we need to help explain and disseminate that work.” 

Civic Engagement

A second line of inquiry for Harbour concerns the growth of new community college civic engagement programs. These initiatives are focused on helping students develop the skills, dispositions and values necessary to be effective members of their communities. 

“At the end of the day, community college students will succeed in life because they have developed the capacity needed to identify and solve problems in collaboration with others – in the community, at work and in the political institutions that organize our democracy,” Harbour said.  “Yes, we all need to do more to eliminate barriers to access and improve completion. But when students leave us and go forward in their lives, they must be prepared to negotiate and advocate for themselves and their families. They need to know how to work effectively in a democracy.” 

Harbour’s research focuses on nationally recognized civic engagement programs and examining the leadership that makes them successful.

Normative Vision

Harbour’s third line of research involves the development of a stronger normative vision for community colleges. He began work on this project in his recently published book, John Dewey and the Future of Community College Education. Every college or university is guided by an institutional mission, he said, and an institution’s mission is established by the state legislature or its trustees. 

“But institutions need more than this,” Harbour said. “They also need a normative vision – a vision of what the institution needs to be about, ethically.  And this includes ensuring that all of us on campus accept responsibility for protecting and securing our democracy.”

The Higher Education Program Faculty and Students

As one of the newest faculty in the College of Education’s Higher Education program, Harbour is working with six colleagues who are teaching and mentoring students in certificate, master’s and doctoral programs. 

“These faculty are truly exceptional,” Harbour said. “They are at the very top of the field in their teaching, research and service. It’s an honor and privilege to be a part of this group. 

“I was familiar with their work before I came to UNT. But now that I’m here, I benefit from their suggestions and observations, almost every day of the week.” 

As for the students in the program, Harbour was reflective. 

“You know,” he said, ”I’ve been working with graduate students – most of them community college leaders – both as a peer and as a professor in doctoral programs, for more than 30 years. What impresses me most about UNT graduate students – and I’m talking about those I have worked with – is that they are not just unusually bright and hardworking. They also have a sense of quiet confidence and professionalism that is often hard to find.

“For those working at community colleges, it’s clear, they know there are big challenges ahead. But, these people are looking for the challenges, seeking them out, and taking the measured risks associated with leadership. They are compassionate and care deeply about their students and their institutions. I’m not sure where they get that. Maybe it’s a Texas thing. But they are definitely players, and they will have a great impact that benefits all of us. And this is good.”

COE grant sees positive results for teachers of English Learners

Several North Texas schools saw notable improvements in science and math test scores among English Learners (ELs) after their teachers participated in the UNT College of Education’s Title III National Professional Development Project NEXUS grant. The $985,000 grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education recently concluded a five-year run of providing professional development and learning opportunities on sheltered instruction and English Language Proficiency Standards for teachers of ELs at 14 Denton ISD and Lewisville ISD schools.  

The Project NEXUS grant was developed to help middle and high school math and science teachers to better reach English learners from multiple language backgrounds. Since its inception in 2012, the project has delivered professional development to 200 teachers.

Data from the Texas Education Agency show that at McMath Middle School in Denton ISD, one of the schools that participated in the EL teacher training at UNT, only 27 percent of ELs achieved “Satisfactory Standard” or “Above End of Course” in the science STAAR tests in 2013-14. That number is significantly lower than the 75 percent of all students at the campus. By 2015-16, the percentage of ELs achieving “Satisfactory Standard” or “Above End of Course” had increased to 65 percent, compared to 83 percent of all students.  

At Denton High School, another school that participated in EL training, the percentage of ELs who performed at “Satisfactory Standard” or “Above End of Course” in the math STAAR tests was 52 percent in 2013-14, compared to 76 percentage of all students at the campus. By 2016-17, the ELs percentage had risen to 65 percent, compared to 76 percent of all students at the campus.

Nexus faculty and staff
Pictured, from left, UNT students and pre-service teachers Jerónimo Figueroa and Ashley Denney, Region 10 ESC consultant Dr. Cynthia Jaird, and UNT student and pre-service teacher Chloe Hawkins-Decaire at the luncheon celebrating the conclusion of Project NEXUS.

Dr. Rossana Boyd, director of Project NEXUS and director of UNT’s Bilingual/ESL Teacher Education Program, said many factors have contributed to improved educational outcomes for ELs, and she’s proud that the professional development offered through Project NEXUS likely played a role.

“What these numbers show is that we’re helping narrow the achievement gap of English learners compared to all students by giving teachers additional knowledge, instructional skills and strategies to teach their subject matter in comprehensible ways that benefit ELs,” Boyd said. “We heard teachers say, ‘I’ve had English learners for years, but I didn’t know what to do for them.’ One of our goals was to help meet that challenge.”

In addition, the grant provided scholarship funding for three current teachers to earn their master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on ESL education; all three are graduating this fall.

“I wish all my colleagues could have had this experience,” said Britni Rowlett, a teacher in Lewisville ISD and one of the three master’s scholarship recipients. “Our students deserve the best we can give, and everyone in this program is working to make that possible.”

The grant also aimed to enhance the instructional skills of UNT students studying to become math and science teachers. It provided review sessions and reimbursements for students taking the TExES ESL Supplemental exam to add English as a Second Language (ESL) Education to their initial teacher certificate. Current UNT College of Education student Jerónimo Figueroa, who is studying for certification to teach mathematics in grades 4-8 with ESL, said the review sessions helped him prepare for life as an educator.  The grant also provided professional development to UNT Teach North Texas students who aspire to be grades 7-12 teachers, with the Region 10 Education Service Center serving as a partner.

“I’m an ESL student myself, and it was really helpful to see the time and commitment teachers put in to reach English Language Learners,” Figueroa said. “I feel like I’m very prepared for what to do with my lesson plans when I become a teacher.”

UNT students also received hands-on learning and networking opportunities by attending state and national conferences such as the National Association for Bilingual Education conference (NABE), the Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and UTeach at UT Austin. 

UNT is one of the top producers of bilingual teachers in the state. Of the 143 teacher preparation providers in Texas, UNT ranks third in certification of bilingual and ESL educators between 2012 and 2017.

“The statistics from the Texas Education Agency show that the UNT Department of Teacher Education and Administration is not only producing more bilingual and ESL teachers than most programs, but we’re also producing better educators for our growing population of English learners,” said Randy Bomer, dean of the UNT College of Education.


Narrowing the Achievement Gap of ELLs

Briton Hagan

Lecturer, Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation
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Andrew Colombo-Dougovito

Assistant Professor, Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation
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UNT researchers testing maple water for rehydration

Avid runners, cyclists and other active exercisers are always looking for a better way to stay hydrated. Now, faculty in the UNT College of Education are researching whether maple water may deserve a spot as the next big thing in post-workout rehydration.

Brian McFarlin, associate professor of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation and director of the UNT Applied Physiology Lab, is working with DRINKmaple, a Vermont-based company that collects pure sap from maple trees, then sterilizes and bottles it. The product tastes like water with a hint of maple flavor and is an excellent source of antioxidants, manganese, calcium and other nutrients with half the sugar of coconut water, said Kate Weiler, co-founder of DRINKmaple.

McFarlin and his team are trying to determine whether maple water can actually rehydrate better than regular H2O.

“Maple water is very high in electrolytes and very low in calories. The composition of it makes it almost the perfect rehydration drink,” he said.

For his preliminary research trial, McFarlin tested 10 participants who performed strenuous exercise in his lab’s heat chamber with the temperature set to a heat index of 175 degrees. The subjects exercised for 45 minutes without drinking, which caused them to become dehydrated. They repeated the trials twice — once with regular tap water and once with maple water. Blood, urine and weight measurements were taken to measure rehydration rates.

McFarlin said his preliminary data show that maple water hydrates two times faster than regular water, meaning that individuals were rehydrated at 30 minutes post exercise with maple water compared to 60 minutes post-exercise with regular water. He also knows first-hand the effects of maple water — in order to prepare the trial for test subjects, McFarlin did the dehydration-rehydration test himself, cycling on his stationary bike in the 175-degree heat chamber.

“I actually tested eight dehydration protocols before settling on the one used in this trial, because I didn’t want anybody else doing it until I was confident we would be able to obtain the exact result we were looking for,” he said.

Despite the grueling nature of the trial, McFarlin said he has a pool of willing test subjects who want to test their endurance in a safe and controlled environment. Now that the preliminary trial is complete, his lab is working with DRINKmaple to expand into a larger trial that will be conducted in 2018. The release of the larger trial results will coincide with a variety of race-related events in the first part of the year.

“We provide real-time monitoring of core temperature, heart rate and other assessments under the supervision of our expert research team and APL medical director so we can make sure our test subjects are OK,” McFarlin said. “A lot of the people will tell us they get some really valuable information, because they say, ‘I would have stopped at this point, but actually I realize I could have gone safely for a longer period of time.’ That’s a big part of competing – linking up when you are actually fatigued versus when you think you’re fatigued.

“We try to find something in every study we do that gives people useful information. Information is powerful, and if you know more about your health, you can make better decisions.”

McFarlin hopes his research will be published later in 2018.


Above and left, test subjects cycle in the UNT Applied Physiology Lab's heat chamber as part of Brian McFarlin's rehydration study.

LaKaavia Taylor

Senior Lecturer, Counseling and Higher Education
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CHE chair recognized for life-saving book

Janice Holden, department chair and professor of counseling in the UNT College of Education's Department of Counseling and Higher Education, received a diploma from the Royal Life Saving Society Commonwealth November 26 at the society's annual National Lifesaving Championships competition in Leeds, England.

The society conferred the diploma, a kind of certificate of recognition, for a book Holden co-authored with water safety expert Stathis Avramidis titled Near-Death Experiences While Drowning (available here: The primary purpose of the book is to educate water safety professionals about the possibility that someone they rescue from drowning may report a near-death experience, usually involving hyperlucid perception from a position apart from the physical body during circumstances in which no conscious experience would be expected, and about how to respond to such a disclosure in a way that helps and does not harm the rescued person.

The diploma reads, "For a high standard of knowledge of lifesaving values and for service in contributing to the development of the Society's aims and objectives."

The Royal Life Saving Society was founded in 1891 in London in response to the large number of drownings occurring at the time. It is a charity registered in the UK with the Charity Commission and is governed by Royal Charter.


Above: Pictured, from left, Stathis Avramidis, Janice Holden and RLSS UK President Ian Hutchings.

Sharla Baker

Program Assistant for Educational Leadership, Teacher Education and Administration
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Rhonda Keller

Administrative Specialist, Teacher Education and Administration
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