- Background. As part of the nationwide student completion agenda, the Achieving the Dream (ATD) national reform network was established to help community colleges quickly institute sustainable change scaled to impact all students at the institution in a short period of time. Although ATD has been in existence for over a decade, the majority of colleges who have become part of ATD have not yet succeeded in increasing levels of student retention or completion or the closing of persistent achievement gaps. Living systems theory provided a useful theoretical framework for this study. According to Capra (1996), living systems theory emphasizes that human systems, much like ecosystems, do not function well as hierarchical structure. All components of a system are vital to its function, each individual having inherent value in the functioning of the whole. That said, individuals do play unique roles within living systems (Youngblood, 1998). Each unique role plays an important part in creating effective systemic change. A keystone role in any process of change within an institution is that occupied by the senior leader. It is the role of the chief executive officer (CEO) to set the stage and to provide the vision of what must change and why, and what is required of the system for continued external integration. ATD’s intention is to help CEOs paint this picture for their colleges (Burke, 2014; MDRC, 2014). Purpose. The purpose of this study was to determine what role CEOs play in significant change in student outcomes as defined by the Achieving the Dream national community college reform network’s stated objectives of creating a culture of evidence, raising retention and completion rates, and closing achievement gaps within community colleges. The study identified leadership practices of CEOs which have contributed to significant movement in ATD's five key indicators: (a) increase retention rates, (b) increase precollege course completion rates, (c) increase completion rates of initial college-level or gatekeeper courses in subjects such as math and English, (d) increase college-level course completion, and (e) increase credential attainment. Setting. Interviews took place via Skype with individuals from three ATD Leah Meyer Austin Award (LMAA)-winning colleges. Subjects. The three community college CEOs who committed themselves, their core team leaders, and leadership coaches to participate came from colleges that varied in situation and size. All participants were in their respective positions at the time their colleges won the LMAA.Research design. A multiple-case study approach was used to examine leadership practices employed to increase student success through sustained innovations at three ATD LMAA-winning colleges. The study sought the perspectives of the college CEOs, core team leader, and ATD leadership coaches about leadership practices that contributed to an environment in which there was a measurable increase in student success. An additional source of data was any available documentation of these efforts. Data collection and analysis. Using semi-structured interviews, interview data were subjected to two coding cycles that used the theoretical framework of living systems theory as a lens to interpret the data. Comparing the literature with the findings provided a way to ensure the findings reliability as well as search for potential new themes that might emerge. In addition, the individual interview process included member-checking using narrative accuracy to reflect and summarize the participants’ interviews. A process of triangulation was made possible by interviewing three participants in the change process at each of the three colleges and incorporating relevant documents. Findings and implications. Confirmed through a process of triangulation with nine interviews and documents from three different colleges, the practices can be generally organized into five broad themes: communicating the importance of improving student outcomes to the college community, commitment on the part of the CEO to increase the use of data to inform decision making, empowerment by the CEO of college personnel to lead institutional change efforts, effort on the part of the CEO to improve college connections to the community, and significant realignment of resources for ATD efforts.This qualitative study will aid future leaders in adopting effective leadership practices that will help more ATD and non-ATD colleges to move quickly to effectively increase student retention and completion and to reduce achievement gaps within the context of the student completion agenda. The colleges included here have quantifiably documented improvements in student outcomes as defined by ATD.Conclusions. Based on the findings of this study, significant institutional change resulting in an increase in positive student outcomes is coupled closely with intentional practices executed by the college CEO. While there are differences in the individual stories of how each CEO led his or her respective college, there is overlap in the 92 relevant leadership practices that surfaced during the course of the nine interviews at the three LMAA-winning colleges. It is clear that CEOs’ actions were seminal in helping move the colleges to become leader colleges and LMAA winners within the ATD network.Keywords: Completion agenda, Achieving the Dream, Leah Meyer Austin Award, Presidential CEO community college leadership, living systems theory, institutional change, change leadership, leadership practices.
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