We are currently bombarded by information about our educational system, whether it’s the need for early childhood education or the appalling completion rates at our community colleges. Everyone from education experts to politicians weighs in on what the solutions might be. Community colleges place a great deal of emphasis on “assessment,” which means measuring how our students are doing. Too often the tools we use for assessment are blunt instruments that do not really look at the important skills and knowledge that our students are gaining or not gaining.
I recently learned about a program started in 1986 by Dr. Rae Fleming Dinneen called Climb Wyoming. Dr. Dinneen developed this program to provide job training for single mothers in Wyoming to help them move out of poverty and into jobs and careers that will allow these women to support their families. The success rate of this program in almost 40 years is remarkable. Ninety-five percent of the women who participate graduate from the 12 week program and remain in their new jobs or in better jobs two years beyond graduation. The women in this program become welders, CNA’s, office managers, warehouse technicians and long distance truck drivers.
What Climb Wyoming has done is taken what we know works in education and applied it. Climb Wyoming does not need “assessments” to tell if what they are doing is working. They see it every day as these young mothers gain job skills, gain relationship skills, gain money skills and gain parenting skills.
What Climb Wyoming does besides pairing women with jobs and job training programs is to facilitate close connections between the women who enroll. Each group that enters together develops a community that supports its members as they meet every week. No participant feels like she is alone, something most of these women felt deeply when they were unemployed or marginally employed. Beyond the immediate connection within each group, Climb Wyoming graduates stay in touch with each other so that those bonds that develop during the training period remain. Climb Wyoming’s staff plays the parts of counselor, cheerleader, older sister, helping each woman over the rough spots, placing each woman in a job training program that will suit her. The staff also teaches resume writing, office etiquette, and gives parenting advice, sometimes something as simple as helping a young mother see that it is important to read aloud to her children.
Research supports all of this work. We know that students learn better if they are in a small, congenial group. They learn better if they have specific goals. They learn better if they have close relationships with their teachers (or in this case the Climb Wyoming leaders). We know students learn better when they can see the result of their learning. We do not need artificial assessments to understand these things.
I suggest that educators look to programs like Climb Wyoming for the answers to some of our educational problems. We need to move to smaller classes that meet more frequently so that students develop relationships with each other. We need to have instructors who are available for students not just for their academic work but for conversations about their students’ lives, about the barriers that might be in the way of a student’s achievement. We need to keep in touch with our students after they have finished our courses, checking in to remind students that people continue to care about them.
In the end, education is about relationships as much as it is about subject matter. Students learn if they care about each other, if their instructor cares about them and if, together they care about the material.
Climb Wyoming takes education’s best practices and puts them to work. I encourage everyone to look at this remarkable program. www.climbwyoming.org.