In this edition of “The Partners,” we sit down with Amarillo College’s Presidents, Russell Lowery-Hart.
No Limits No Excuses: How did Amarillo College originally get involved with No Limits No Excuses?
Amarillo College: When Partners for Postsecondary Success (PPS) first came out with the Gates Grant, the Foundation pulled people together, and Amarillo College was in that room. I remember vividly seeing all the organizations in the room, talking about educational attainment, and I’m thinking, this is the opportunity for Amarillo College to integrate itself into the community more fully. I felt like people supported the College but didn’t understand it because I wasn’t sure the college had been truly responsive to all of our partners. To have a unifying goal as a community gave me great clarity where I could come back to Amarillo College and immediately start linking things that we wanted to do to the goal or redesign things to fulfill that goal.
It was a natural fit, immediately, and it gave a framework for our work internally, not just for the partnership. Our PPS coaches gave us a framework that we started evaluating all of our interventions against. It gave us the context of a living wage. And now, we won’t entertain starting a program that doesn’t start with a living wage or won’t lead to a living wage and a pathway.
NLNE: What has kept AC’s involvement through this five-year process?
AC: Because it’s made us better. It helped us understand our students more fully so that we could serve the students we have, not the students we wish we had or thought we had. It’s integrated us with other partners like AISD, Workforce Solutions, and the ACE program.
I feel like we’re all unified because we’re all working toward the same goal. Before No Limits, No Excuses, we all had individual goals that weren’t aligned. So, we keep coming back because the partnerships generate new approaches and more effective outcomes for our students.
NLNE: How has the partnership increased your relationships with other institutions, and what do those look like now?
AC: Well, in some really tangible ways. Workforce Solutions now has an employee that they pay that is housed in our career center and we share their software. We can take someone that Workforce Solutions is serving, find them a job and put them in an academic or certificate program simultaneously. So, it’s integrating effort, and that’s the best example of what’s happened through this partnership.
NLNE: I always say this when I’m talking about NLNE, it’s obvious that Amarillo College, Amarillo ISD, and WT had a relationship prior to NLNE. However, It seems like the intentionality of the relationships brought on by NLNE, and sitting in the same room and having conversations, is really the genesis of success and culture change for No Limits, No Excuses.
AC: We have a shared goal and have developed more trust. We’re sharing data to support that shared goal, and when you have that, you don’t see yourselves as competitors. We’ve worked together before NLNE, but I don’t think we worked together as effectively. We saw each other as competition, and I think that has completely subsided. NLNE partner employees are working at the same table to design programs and in NLNE work groups to better serve our community. You build relationships that build trust that build integrated services. I love the partnership that we have, and I love the relationship that the three most important educational entities in our community have as a result of NLNE.
NLNE: What changes in culture in regards to universal achievement have you seen?
AC: One is a complete focus on data. We used to worship the anecdotal, and take the anecdotal as the gospel for every student. So, if we had one student from Palo Duro High School that came to AC and transferred to WT, and then got a job on Wall Street, then it proved how amazing we were when we had a whole swath of students that didn’t have that same experience.
Universal achievement forced us to focus on the “universal” part of achievement and not cherry-pick the stories we liked. We needed to own the stories we didn’t like, and then to put data to it and do system analysis of it – this process has truly been transformative for us. But if you want to take credit for that person’s success, you also have to take the blame for a student’s failure. Before the No Excuses approach to our work as an institution and as a community, we didn’t want to take ownership of our students’ failures.
Our big marketing push right now is “Success IS …” , and we’re trying to highlight students that have gone through Amarillo College, maybe went on to WT and then worked in this community. If we’re going to change the future of the community,
we have got to stop talking about success as getting out. Success is not defined by getting out. Success is defined by getting a degree and a job and staying in.
NLNE: What role does Amarillo College play in or serve as a partner?
AC: I’m probably not the person to ask that question. I think in a lot of ways, we can help the partnership glue things together. We are the glue between the ISD high school graduate and the bachelor’s degree. We’re the glue between the ISD and the workforce, and I feel that pressure, and I need my colleagues in Amarillo College to feel that pressure. We say Amarillo is only as strong as its college because if we can serve this partnership with this community successfully, everybody is going to be successful. But if we can’t, then the whole community loses and that keeps me up at night.
NLNE: What does the future look like for education, post-secondary education in the workforce?
AC: It has to look different than it does now. It has to be… more seamless. There will be more focused on giving students pathways to options. But for a community college, we need to be a gateway for opportunity, and so, we need to give students a foundational understanding of what their options are, but they don’t necessarily have to define those options here. They need to find them at WT or at Tech, or wherever they go.
NLNE: What impact has NLNE had on your organization, culturally and physically?
AC: Culturally, I think it’s given us more confidence in our place in the community. We understand our role more fully and have embraced it and are excited about it. Structurally and philosophically, it’s had an enormous impact on Amarillo College. It gave us a no excuses philosophy; it connected us to the No Excuses University.
NLNE: Define “no excuses”.
AC: For me, that means that at Amarillo College, every student has the opportunity to succeed because we’ve built systems for them to be successful. But when they’re not successful, we don’t have any excuses for that failure. It means we didn’t have the right person, the right policy, the right support or the right process in place to ensure that success. We have to give students opportunity without limits. But we can’t have excuses for lack of achievement, and we used to swim in those excuses: demographics, first-generation status, income level, test scores. Those are influences that are essential to understanding, but they’re not excuses anymore.
So, for us, that’s changed our philosophy but it’s structurally changed us as well. Without No Limits, No Excuses, we wouldn’t have a Career Center, food pantries, clothing closets and an entire systemic approach to social services. We wouldn’t have a coach’s champions program, a Money Management Center, the Texas Workforce Commission, and a Workforce Solutions office on our campus, jointly serving students.
We would just be a typical community college without the partnerships, and now we’re a place that’s really special.
NLNE: What impact have you seen No Limits, No Excuses have on the community?
AC: Here’s what I love – I think that it’s had a real impact on understanding what our education attainment levels are, and why everyone should care about them. Why it affects everyone on a personal level, and that, instead of memorializing the demographic shifts that are happening, and the growth of poverty, we can make a collective impact and redefine and redirect the future of this community, and we can do it together, and only together.
NLNE: How would you characterize success for No Limits, No Excuses?
AC: I think success for No Limits, No Excuses is when Amarillo Colleges gets to a 70 percent completion rate, because it’ll take the community to make that happen. Success is when there is a more diversified economy because we have an educated workforce to support it. Success is when poverty rates go down and more of our citizens are in a living wage. Success is when our property values go up because there is a broader part of this community that’s supporting the infrastructure that we need to grow.
NLNE: What other thoughts do you have about No Limits, No Excuses?
AC: The shift for me in NLNE from 2009 when we started talking about this collective impact to 2017 is that, when I think about the organizations that are a part of the partnership, before I just thought about them as organizations in our community that we either had to work through or work around, and now, I see friends that are trying to help me fulfil my mission