Lisa Vogl

Prior knowledge is central to memory and learning, but many older refugees come to the classroom with ways of knowing and experiences much different from what they find in Western teaching contexts. Somali elders offer insight.
Key words: indigenous knowledge, Somali, elders, beginning language and literacy, LESLLA

Almost six years ago, I was working in an affordable housing nonprofit as a coordinator of ESL programs. I was struck by the number of elder learners in the program—their regular attendance in a beginning literacy class impressed upon me a vibrant example of who adult learners are. They often said, “Teacher! Students—no good!,” but this ran counter to what I knew must be vast reserves of prior learning experiences which, because I did not speak Somali, I knew nothing about. I wanted to honor their vitality of mind and spirit in learning through a qualitative study on their prior learning experiences and indigenous knowledge (Vogl, 2019). The stories they shared with me described important lessons that were altogether invisible to me, and which I would like to share in this piece: elder learners’ prior learning experiences, the interplay of indigenous knowledge and cultural dissonance in beginning language and literacy classrooms, and the profound impact of isolation and trauma among refugee learners. 

Becoming familiar with the knowledge and experiences our students bring to the classroom is one of the central tenets of adult education theory (Tarone, Bigelow, & Hansen, 2009; TESOL International Association, 2018). This can be most challenging in beginning language and literacy classrooms, where the teacher may not always share a language or cultural background similar to their students’. In this paper, I share narratives from elder learners in order to highlight their knowledge and prior learning experiences. Their knowledge is indigenous knowledge, which is passed down orally through generations, and is specific to the place where they lived. 

I focus on one particular subset of learners—Somali elders aged 65 and older participating in a beginning language and literacy classroom in Minnesota. Seven participants had gone to school in the U.S. for more than two years, and of those, six were currently attending school at the time of the study. Of the remaining participants, five had attended school in the U.S. fewer than six months and were not currently attending school, while two had never attended school in the U.S. (Vogl, 2019). In order to understand what happens to the place-based knowledge that these learners possess when they must leave their country, I highlight important findings from a qualitative study of interviews and observations with an instructor and elders (Vogl, 2019), which explored their prior learning experiences in order to illuminate what indigenous knowledge is and how culture dissonance, trauma, and isolation can impact elder learners, in elders’ own words. Finally, while the main findings of this study explored indigenous knowledge and cultural dissonance, I will briefly discuss some approaches that may be useful for teachers to apply with learners of any age.

Elders as Learners

Language learning can be challenging at any age, and the apocryphal belief is that it may become impossible the older you get. But language learning does not stop after childhood (de Bot & Makoni, 2005), and many who register for adult ESL classes are elders. Further compounding our understanding of elders’ needs is the fact that the majority of research on the experiences of refugees in education is focused primarily on younger refugees (Haines, 2010). The research which does focus on elder learners is largely focused on high-income white populations, while minority populations are underrepresented (von Doetinchem de Rande, 2012). 

The elders interviewed in this study had not attended school in their home country and were not literate in their first language. In fact, it was not until 1972, when Somali elders of the present day had already reached adulthood, that Somali became the national language and language of instruction. Formal education was limited and intended to further colonization of the country by Britain and Italy (Abdi, 1998). The elders who participated in this study had not gone to school, but instead grew up learning from their elders, in different environments and lifestyles (Vogl, 2019).

Students’ relation to indigenous knowledge is dynamic and subject to shifts in lifestyle and occupation. This is true even for elder learners who, in the case of this group of participants, reached adulthood before being subjected to the upheaval and trauma following the civil war and refugee resettlement process. With this background information, we are able to set the context for indigenous knowledge and how it shapes elder learners’ perception of learning experiences.

What is Indigenous Knowledge? 

Many people know things which have aspects reminiscent of indigenous knowledge. For example, perhaps your grandmother showed you how to preserve fruits you grow in the summer and save them for the winter; for others, indigenous knowledge may be the stories and lessons your extended family taught you about the land they grew up on or the neighborhood where they lived. But for most of us who grew up in the U.S., the knowledge we have comes from books, like the canon of American literature or legends of our founding fathers. This knowledge was taught to us in formal settings, and, thanks to standardized education, much of what we know is the same no matter where we live (Semali & Kincheloe, 1999). For elder refugees from Somalia, their knowledge is not found in textbooks—it was passed down orally through generations, and it is specific to the place where they lived (Ahmed, 2014). 

As I was having conversations with elder participants, I was most interested in how I, as a teacher, could understand more about their indigenous knowledge as the prior learning experiences that are so valuable to adult learners in any language class. But, indigenous knowledge as an epistemological concept is difficult for outsiders, as I was in this situation, to nail down and to understand. Often, I felt I was at an impasse in the conversations with elders and didn’t know how to ask more questions to find out more. Luckily, one elder explained the differences between text-based learning and indigenous knowledge systems with textbook-like precision:

“You can practice with your parents. You look at your brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, and your neighbors. How to butcher, how to milk, how to build and move. It’s not something you imagine—it’s something you can watch.”

This quote shows us that, rather than formal classroom learning experiences, elder learners’ indigenous knowledge was based in experiential learning through apprenticeship, and was grounded in the places and lifestyles of elders before coming to the U.S. As educators, we want to know more about our students’ past learning experiences when teaching new skills. Whether our students grew up in the city or in the country, learning through formal or informal education, we must become more familiar with what they know. For many elder refugees, indigenous knowledge is that wealth of information educators need to draw on, and elder learners attest that it is of equal value to text-based learning:

“Everything about the country, you can write. If you don’t know anything, you are a dark person.”

[Do you think country people are dark people?]

“Country is country, city is city, the education is a different way. Everybody knows what they know. No, everything is good.”

[In reference to images of nomadic lifestyles:]
“This is education. This is a building that they build. This is their house. Sometimes they move. Sometimes they build. This is learning. See? It’s learning.”

Most elders interviewed in this study grew up in rural communities rather than cities, and so I explored how learning was different there and how elder learners compared it to formal schooling. The quotes above demonstrate that elders recognize the value in indigenous knowledge and its relevance to formal learning experiences (“Everything about the country, you can write.”). Further, in indigenous societies, elders are living repositories of indigenous knowledge, and they often become teachers themselves (Dubus, 2010). Elders as teachers offer a deep, reflective sensibility and insight into the precariousness and continual conditionality of life (Deloria, 2006; Gadow, 1983). It’s clear that elders have so much to contribute, not only as learners, but as teachers themselves. Thus, student-centered teaching strategies are essential to engaging elders in a way that enables them to share their prior learning experiences.

Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Dissonance

As a primary tenet of adult learning theory, students’ prior success in learning is paramount to success in the acquisition of new skills (Vinogradov, 2013). However, when students perceive a difference between their prior learning experiences and what they experience in the classroom, this can present cultural dissonance. Cultural dissonance, as was identified by the elder learners in this study, concerns perceived differences in priorities between the students’ ways of knowing and learning and the Western-style, formal educational framework used in the U.S., which can cause a general sense of discord and conflict when confronted with a new cultural model for learning (Marshall & DeCapua, 2013).

Each elder began the interview with a story about their indigenous knowledge and expertise and success in learning prior to coming to the United States. But while each elder identified this knowledge as valid and their learning experiences as successful, many later conceded their belief when asked to talk about their experiences as students in the U.S. And for many, this meant that their prior knowledge could not be valuable to them in their current experience: “English and Somali are different. I didn’t even go to duqsi. All the things I’ve learned wouldn’t help me in English class.

The profound impact this has on elder learners is real. I was struck in particular by one elder’s account of why she quit going to school. As one elder described to me, “pen and pencil” learning is the only kind that counts as real education:

“He’s an educated person– he’s a teacher. Me, I’m not educated. 

[You don’t see all the things you learned as being a resource in your life?] 

When you ask me about learning, I always think pen and pencil. But me, I don’t think it was learning. If you want to learn something you have to learn from your brain. I think, “Why do I bother my teacher? I’m not going to bother my teacher.”

[Why do you feel like you’re wasting the teacher’s time?] 

People keep going and I’m going behind. And I will stay home. That’s what I decided.

When elders see a difference between the expectations and practices of Western-style, formal education and everything they have learned in their own lives, this presents cultural dissonance. These perceived differences follow elders into the classroom, impacting their self-esteem and raising their affective filter, making it too stressful to learn and affecting their attendance. 


Nobody knocks on your door in America. I can’t tell my problems, whatever I have inside.”

In a culture which values individualism and independence like in the United States, elders’ vitality is often measured by how well elders are able to live independently and remain self-sufficient (Clark, 1991). On the other hand, Somali culture, as well as many indigenous cultures throughout the world, is collectivist. While the primary focus of this study was on indigenous knowledge and prior learning experiences, a full portrait of elders’ experiences revealed the profound impact of isolation and trauma on elder refugees.

One elder I interviewed was a favorite classmate and neighbor among everyone we knew. As a gregarious, caring person who kept up with all her neighbors, she taught me by example how living in a community is so important to people at any age, and something which is markedly absent in American society. She described the differences between individualist and collectivist societies in this profound indictment:

Why don’t you know your neighbors? Somali people and our religion say you have to know your neighbors. What did they eat last night? If they didn’t eat, you have to feed them. You have to eat together—that’s what being neighbors means. In America, the only way that they don’t know each other is because there is no trust. When one of their American neighbors dies, how do they go?

Many of the elders in this study, like the speaker above, attested to the profound importance of community. Through his student-centered approach, the teacher in the building where these elder learners lived demonstrated how English class can be a part of the fabric of the community, where neighbors participate in learning together. A student-centered approach is essential to becoming a part of the community. The elder learners in this study were celebrated and welcomed as major participants in class, taking turns at the whiteboard and leading activities. 

In addition to isolation, past trauma has a profound impact on elders’ sense of self and current experiences as learners:

[So you’re good at math…]

If you ask me now I forget. They used to tell me, “Come on, come on—you are the expert at adding together.” But now I don’t know because of the civil war. Our life was so bad, that’s why we forget a lot.

Several elder participants reported that they were bothered by thinking about the past, or “thinking too much.” In a report by the Minnesota Department of Health (2014), “thinking too much” was identified as a possible indicator of trauma and PTSD affecting functionality, and this was corroborated by the testimony of several elders in this study. Recognition of trauma is a first step towards incorporating the systemic changes needed to adequately serve students who have been affected by it.

Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge in Western Classrooms

A student-centered centered approach values prior knowledge—and when it comes to indigenous knowledge, our students are the experts. Elders as Fonts of Knowledge (Watson, 2015) is one such approach that has shown success. Calling on elders’ expertise may also require educators to “flip the classroom,” and Marshall and DeCapua’s (2013) Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm provides excellent guideposts for validating students’ background knowledge when learning new skills.

As the interviews in this study revealed, elder refugees’ lived experiences have important implications for educators. We know that ignoring indigenous knowledge has profound consequences on students in general, and elders as underserved students in particular, and its solution lies in curriculum development and innovation. But, indigenous knowledge is not a “show-and-tell” project, nor is it available as ready-made school curricular materials. It will require ground-breaking research to reach all students.



Abdi, A. A. (1998). Education in Somalia: History, destruction, and calls for reconstruction. Comparative Education, 34(3), 327-40.

Ahmed, F. (2014). Exploring halaqah as research method: a tentative approach to developing Islamic research principles within a critical ‘indigenous’ framework. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27(5), 561-583.

Clark, P. G. (1991). Ethical dimensions of quality of life in aging: Autonomy vs. collectivism in the United States and Canada. Gerontologist, 31(5), 631-639.

de Bot, K., Makoni, S. (2005). Language and aging in multilingual contexts. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Deloria, V. (2006). The world we used to live in: Remembering the powers of the medicine men. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Pub.

Dubus, N. (2010). “I feel like her daughter not her mother”: Ethnographic trans-cultural perspective of the experiences of aging for a group of Southeast Asian refugees in the United States. Journal of Aging Studies, 24(3), 204-211.

Gadow, S. (1983). Frailty and strength: The dialectic in aging. The Gerontologist, 23(2), 144-147.

Haines, D. (2010). Safe haven?: A history of refugees in America. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press.

Marshall, H. W., & DeCapua, A. (2013). Making the transition to classroom success: Culturally responsive teaching for struggling language learners. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Minnesota Department of Health. (2014). Mental health screening recommendations for newly arrived refugees in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Department of Health. Accessed 16 November, 2019 at

Semali, L. M., & Kincheloe, J. L. (1999). What is indigenous knowledge?: Voices from the academy. Hoboken: Routledge.

Tarone, E., Bigelow, M., & Hansen, K. (2009). Literacy and second language oracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

TESOL International Association. (2018). The Six principles of exemplary teaching of English Learners. Accessed 1 November 2019 at 

Vinogradov, P. (2013). Defining the LESLLA teacher knowledge base. Proceedings
from the 8th LESLLA Symposium (pp. 9-24). Jyvaskyla, Finland: Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition.

Vogl, L. (2019) Indigenous knowledge and literacy acquisition: A qualitative study of low-literate elder refugees’ educational backgrounds and cultural dissonance. Proceedings from the 13th LESLLA Symposium (pp. 160-174). Portland, Oregon: Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition. 

von Doetinchem de Rande, S. (2012). Education for the elders in the U.S. Opportunities and challenges in the context of the demographic change. REPORT 4/2012 (35. Jg.), 35-54. Retrieved from 

Watson, J. (2015) Instructional approaches that set SLIFE up to succeed (and are good for everybody else): Structured oral interaction and elders as fonts of knowledge. Paper presented at the 2015 Minnesota English Learner Education (MELEd) Conference, Bloomington, MN. Accessed 16 November, 2019 at 



Madie Spartz, Norzin Waleag, Elizabeth Fontaine, and Merle Greene

College Readiness Academy (CRA) is an innovative program model providing both academic instruction and wrap-around advising services to college-bound Adult Basic Education (ABE) students. This article explains CRA’s rationale and methods for implementation, including a sample lesson plan, outcomes, and potential for replication.
Key words: College readiness, developmental education, equity, remediation, navigation

College Readiness Academy (CRA), offered by the International Institute of Minnesota (the Institute), is an innovative model with proven success in preparing college-bound adults for college-level coursework. CRA helps bridge the achievement gap that many first-generation, college-bound new students experience in higher education. By fully integrating intensive academic skill-building with proactive navigation services, CRA helps students overcome academic and personal obstacles to college success. The overall goal of CRA is to provide a seamless transition to college by offering an alternative to the post-secondary, remedial (sometimes called developmental) education system, which can increase college retention and graduation rates, while also saving time and money. In this article, the authors—CRA instructors and navigators—highlight the challenges that led to the development of CRA, describe the classes and navigation system, and demonstrate how the CRA model might work for students

The Problem

The CRA Partnership was launched in 2015 in response to the frustrations expressed to us faced by graduates of the Institute’s nursing assistant training program as they attempted to enter college nursing programs. The stories of struggle had a common theme: students had been assigned to mandatory developmental education (ESL, reading, and writing classes offered at colleges), and they were spending many semesters in these courses. This, in turn, created a barrier to enrolling directly in the college-level prerequisite courses needed for nursing programs. This anecdotal evidence has been echoed in national studies as well. The U.S. Department of Education found that 68% of all public two-year students are placed into remedial coursework (Chen, 2016, p. 16). Moreover, students entering remedial education very often do not make it beyond that point. The students placing into these classes are “74% more likely to drop out of college than first-time, full-time, non-developmental students” (Schak, Metzger, Bass, McCann, & English, 2017, p.7). Barry and Dannenberg (2016) indicated that students who take even one remedial class at post-secondary institutions are far less likely to graduate with an associate or bachelor’s degree than students who begin taking college-level classes. 

This is not only an issue of graduation rates. Developmental education classes are tuition-based, so students unfamiliar with the post-secondary system in the US might assume them to be college-level, credit-bearing coursework. In some cases, students have used critical financial aid resources for these classes. Prospective CRA students at the Institute often ask us about the remedial coursework: “Will this class listed on my transcript give me credit like college classes do?” The message is clear: many of our students have mistakenly believed that remedial classes award credits that count toward their degrees. Because they typically do not, such developmental classes can be a costly alternative to the free preparation available through Adult Basic Education (ABE) in Minnesota.

Who is Impacted

The populations most affected by placement in remedial education programs are students of color, first-generation college students, English language learners, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Academic and Student Affairs, 2018a). Among all beginning postsecondary students, an estimated 58 percent of Hispanic students, 57 percent of black students, 39 percent of Pell Grant recipients, and 40 percent of first-generation college students enrolled in a developmental course between 2010 and 2014 (King, McIntosh, & Bell-Ellwanger, 2017). 

Moving in a New Direction

Recognizing the challenges that face students who place into remedial courses, Minnesota State created a Developmental Education Strategic Roadmap, which outlines Minnesota State’s collective initiative for revamping the Developmental Education system (Academic and Student Affairs, 2018b). They hope to “re-imagine how students are placed into developmental or college-level courses, as well as how students can successfully complete required developmental-level courses and subsequent college-level gateway courses, enabling them to be on-track in the first year of pursuing their academic program” (p. 3). In fact, Strategic Goal 3.3 charges Minnesota State colleges to “Establish and/or strengthen partnerships with Adult Basic Education, community organizations, and/or other student support services (e.g. TRIO) to provide support for students in developmental education”(p. 2). Goal 5.3 requests they “Establish and/or strengthen bridging options that facilitate student placement into college-level courses (i.e., partnership with Adult Basic Education, summer bridge program, boot camp, course placement assessment prep, etc.)” (p. 2). Moving in this direction will improve partnerships with ABE and make college more affordable to students placing into remedial levels. One solution already in place within ABE is College Readiness Academy (CRA), which provides free college preparation in addition to ongoing navigation throughout the students’ college experience until graduation.

College Readiness Academy

CRA is an effective and free approach that integrates academic skill-building focused on reading, writing, digital literacy, and study skills with intensive navigation (see Figure 1). The navigation typically includes guidance on issues like paying for school, campus culture, and overcoming barriers to progress.

Figure 1: College Readiness Model
Figure 1: College Readiness Model

Currently, CRA classes take place at three sites: The International Institute of Minnesota, Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning, and Saint Paul College. Over the past three years, CRA graduates have moved on to college bypassing an average of 1.5 semesters of developmental education. Of the college-bound students who have completed CRA since 2015, our program has tracked that over 150 have enrolled in college-level courses and programs. Moreover, 90% of these students have persisted beyond the first semester in college, and their average GPA is above 3.5. Additionally, CRA navigators have helped students apply for and earn over $290,000 in college scholarships. CRA students are graduating with a certificate or associate or bachelor’s degree, majoring in a range of programs from nursing to accounting to computer science. By helping to bridge the opportunity gap through academic preparation and navigation support, CRA has increased access to higher education and ultimately to jobs and careers with family-sustaining wages. 

In addition to the internal data tracked on students, we have also conducted external evaluations. The most recent evaluation in 2019 conducted by external consultants, The Improve Group, found that “CRA students earn more credits, are more likely to stay enrolled at college, and are more likely to graduate than Developmental Education students. CRA students may be more likely to succeed because of the academic skills and familiarity with the college campus they develop during the program. CRA students are also more likely to stay the course, in part because of the intensive support they receive from CRA navigators” (p. 3). Another interesting statistic is the comparison in credits earned by students who were able to earn a C or higher. And lastly, the evaluation also showed that “On average, CRA students enroll in more credits over their academic careers than [Developmental Education] students, resulting in higher per-student revenue for the colleges” (p. 5). 

The evidence reported by the Improve Group (2019) and our own experience with learners indicates that CRA is a viable solution to the disparities in educational attainment and income by primarily serving low-income students of color, including New Americans.

The CRA Classroom

There are a number of defining characteristics of CRA that contribute to the success of our students academically, including skills integration in class, more class time, a cohort model, and integrated learning objectives. 

Skills Integration

CRA lessons are organic in terms of skill-building because all of the academic components—literacy, oral, computer, and study skills—are fully integrated. Speaking activities, for example, reinforce new vocabulary and give students time to process reading content in preparation for writing tasks. There is a long list of measurable integrated skills objectives that students are assessed to achieve: 

  • Identify the differences between fiction and nonfiction materials.
  • Identify the stated or implied main idea of an academic reading.
  • Focus, read, and apply critical reading skills to college-level texts.
  • Prewrite and write varied and clear sentences.
  • Practice process-writing.
  • Write summary and synthesis paragraphs.
  • Practice writing an essay.
  • Formally summarize a variety of college-level materials, such as articles, editorials, and lectures. 
  • Use various strategies for developing vocabulary.
  • Paraphrase main ideas and major supporting details of a variety of text types, with an emphasis on textbook reading. 
  • Synthesize information from multiple sources on a topic.
  • Utilize graphic organizers to structure paragraphs, essays, and presentations.
  • Enhance Accuplacer skills.
  • Increase computer competency in typing, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, and Google Docs.
  • Complete homework. 
  • Keep a weekly schedule.

See Appendix A for a step-by-step lesson plan from a CRA classroom to see how these components are integrated into lessons. 

Intensive Instruction

In CRA, students have abundant face-to-face time with instructors: about twelve hours/week. CRA’s concentrated in-class time is a significant benefit to a student population that needs extra guidance with the opportunity to work in a quiet, focused atmosphere. When students undertake out-of-class assignments, extra class time allows the instructor to monitor their first steps, confirm they are on the right track, or redirect when they are not, before they commit time to a misguided task. 

Cohort model

Another important feature of CRA is its strong student cohort. The Power of a Cohort and Collaborative Groups published by the National Center on the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy explored the use of cohorts in ABE and ESL settings, recommending that educators develop an “enduring and consistent learner cohort, employing practices by which students are regularly invited to engage in collaborative learning” (Drago-Severson, Helsing, Kegan, Popp, Broderick, & Portnow, 2001, p. 22).  

CRA implements the cohort model; through managed enrollment and an intensive 12-hour-a-week schedule, students work with the same group of learners every day. Moreover, a significant proportion of class time is spent in pair work or small group activities. During this time, students negotiate meaning and share insights with peers, fostering group cohesion. Also, the classroom is configured such that 4-6 students sit around each table, which also encourages collaboration. And another way that CRA exemplifies the cohort model is by making sure the reading and writing tasks are based on socially relevant topics, encouraging students to have conversations that go deeper and build both self-knowledge and stronger relationships with peers. Individual and group presentations on these topics help students from diverse cultures to recognize their similarities.

All of this fosters a greater motivation and learning: “… cohort experiences seem to facilitate academic learning, increased feelings of belonging, broadened perspectives, and, at least by our participants’ report, learner persistence” (Drago-Severson, et al., 2001, p. 22). We continue to see evidence of the effectiveness of a strong learner cohort when students discuss assignments the moment they walk into class, when they stay after class to help one another, when they share personal stories, and when their relationships continue into college.

College Navigation

The inability to navigate college systems is a major obstacle to student success. In response, CRA incorporates proactive college navigation to help students prepare for college and complete their degrees. College navigators work with students step-by-step from their initial CRA class until they graduate from college. Unlike college advisors, who usually have hundreds—if not thousands—of students, college navigators usually work with approximately 50 students at a time (Robinson, 2016). This allows navigators to offer students the intensive case management they need as well as the wrap-around services that enable them to stay in school.

The navigators are present in class both as supplemental instructors and as participants on a weekly basis, assisting the instructor, interacting with students, and monitoring their progress. This allows them to build a meaningful relationship with each student by becoming familiar with their goals and life circumstances. Supplementing classroom navigation with effective individual support is only possible when there is a reasonable navigator/student ratio. 

 “For me the problem with college is not the concepts. It’s how to better understand what I had to do. Without CRA I think it would have taken me a long, long time.”

-Gnande, CRA Graduate

College navigators’ support to students includes:

  • Accuplacer testing
  • Registration 
  • Development and delivery of curriculum to each class on a variety of subjects, including financial aid, time management, self-advocacy, and choosing a major
  • Assistance with completing FAFSA and related documents
  • Assistance with scholarship applications
  • Delivery of orientations each semester for students ready to begin college
  • Goal-setting, both academic and personal, short-term and long-term 
  • Assistance with college applications and registration
  • Troubleshooting with admissions, enrollment, financial aid, foreign education accreditation, transfer issues, and other barriers to graduation
  • Academic support such as feedback on assignments and referrals to on-campus resources
  • One-on-one advising to overcome personal barriers to college success, such as loss of employment, child care challenges, and housing struggles through hands-on referrals

 “I learned in classes to express myself and to use my critical thinking skills to solve problems. The navigator is always available to answer questions and helps to put in place the college process.”

-Christelle, CRA graduate

Initiating and Sustaining CRA

An obvious first step to establishing a high-quality college readiness program is to build a team of experienced instructors and navigators. CRA instructors have had combined experience in adult basic education, ESL instruction, and higher education. Navigators typically bring experience with college access organizations or social work. Regardless of professional background, it is critical for instructors and navigators to be flexible, dynamic, creative educators and problem-solvers. Working with a diverse adult population at a variety of sites necessitates a willingness to adjust practices to best fit the needs of the particular group. In order to build trust between navigators and students, navigators are fully integrated into the classroom. 

In order for a program to be viable and to improve over time, it is imperative to collect comprehensive data, including student educational background information, progress, and outcomes. Funders will want detailed information on demographics, success rates, and many other metrics, so a uniform method is needed for tracking pertinent information. A customer relationship manager (CRM) is a beneficial tool for data tracking and synthesis. A strong program will also perform frequent self-evaluation and adjust methods accordingly; a CRM is useful for this practice as well. Some examples of frequently accessed metrics include:

  • Number or proportion of students making a “level gain,” therefore bypassing some or all of developmental education classes at the college
  • Amount of money saved by students attending CRA rather than paying tuition for developmental education classes
  • Number or proportion of students who advance to college and graduate

Finally, one of the most important elements of creating a successful, sustainable college readiness program is building and maintaining relationships and institutional trust with local colleges, which requires significant time and effort. This process is ongoing and constantly evolving, but the more support a college can give the program, the more impact the program can have. The relationship is symbiotic: CRA provides colleges with a steady stream of prepared, motivated students; in turn, the college can afford CRA students unique benefits, including increased academic support, flexibility with entrance requirements, and exemption from college entrance exams. Perhaps most importantly, students will gain trust in the college and become fully confident in their identity as college students and, ultimately, graduate.


Academic and Student Affairs. (2018a). Developmental education plan report to the legislature. Minnesota State. Accessed 1 November 2019 at 

Academic and Student Affairs. (2018b). Developmental education strategic roadmap: Minnesota State’s strategic plan for developmental education redesign. Minnesota State. Accessed 1 November 2019 at

Barry, N. G., & Dannenberg, M. (2016). Out of pocket: The high cost of inadequate high schools and high school student achievement on college affordability. Education Reform Now. Accessed 1 November 2019 at 

Chen, X. (2016). Remedial course-taking at U.S. public 2- and 4-year institutions: Scope, experiences, and outcomes (NCES 2016-405). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Accessed 1 November 2019 at 

Drago-Severson, E., Helsing, D., Kegan, R., Popp, N., Broderick, M., & Portnow, K. (2001). The power of a cohort and of collaborative groups. NCSALL. Accessed 1 November 2019 at

King, J. B., McIntosh, A., & Bell-Ellwanger, J. (2017, January). Developmental education challenges and strategies for reform. U.S. Department of Education. Accessed 1 November 2019 at 

Robinson, W. (2016). Community college academic advisors and the challenge of access in the age of completion (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Iowa State University, Ames, IA. Accessed 1 November 2019 at 

Schak, O., Metzger, I., Bass, J., McCann, C., & English, J. (2017). Developmental education challenges and strategies for reform. U.S. Department of Education. Accessed 1 November 2019 at 

The Improve Group. (2019). College Readiness Academy (CRA) 2018-19 Evaluation Findings.  St. Paul, MN: The Improve Group. 

Appendix A

Example of Step-by-Step of Skills Integration in CRA Classroom

Authentic reading: Adapted from “The Perils of Polygamy”, published in The Economist – December 23, 2017

This article claims that polygamy is responsible for instability and violence in South Sudan. The instructor abbreviated it somewhat and added footnotes for essential vocabulary that could not be understood from context. The class approached the article like this:

  1. Students completed a pre-reading worksheet: they analyzed select sentences for cause-and-effect and compare-contrast relationships, and practiced prediction skills. 
  2. Class generated a list of questions they wanted answered by the text.
  3. Class read the text aloud.
  4. Pairs re-read and annotated the text, paragraph by paragraph, looking for answers to their questions.
  5. Class generated a list of the benefits and drawbacks of polygamy.
  6. Pairs developed a graphic organizer of the cause-and-effect chain of events that led from the practice of polygamy to social instability. 
  7. Students explained the content of the article to a partner using word prompts that included new vocabulary and then repeated the task with a different partner until ideas became clearer, language more fluent, and new vocabulary more familiar. 
  8. Students wrote one-sentence and one-paragraph summaries of the article.
  9. Class conversation drew on students’ personal reactions to the text. Two students had actually had family experiences with polygamy. Instructor then posed questions that encouraged deeper analysis, including practice of TABE and Accuplacer-style reading skills. Students broke into small groups for discussion, and then debriefed together.

    • What was the author’s purpose? Claim? Tone? 
    • What important content was omitted from the article? 
    • What changes would have to occur in South Sudan in order for the incidence of polygamy to decrease?
  10. A variety of vocabulary activities – written, aural, and oral – punctuated the lesson such that, in the end, students were able to contextualize at least 16 formerly-unfamiliar words from the text that are commonly found in academic readings.