Innovative community colleges compete for the coveted Bellwether Prize


Rose M. MartinezTwenty-six community colleges from 14 states gathered in San Antonio for the 28th annual meeting on the future of community colleges last February. Highly skilled project management teams gathered for the three-day event with unbridled enthusiasm to compete for one of community college’s most prestigious honors, as the recipient of a Bellwether Award. The award focuses on cutting-edge, cutting-edge programs worth replicating.

The Bellwether College Consortium is an independent think tank that hosts competitive teams from across the country each year. These community colleges earn the distinction of being named Bellwether Finalists. They are selected through a rigorous two-round process, and the ten highest-scoring community college programs compete in one of three award categories: 1.) educational programs and services; 2.) workforce development; and 3.) planning, governance and finance.

The competing teams compete for both the Best in Showcase award and the coveted Bellwether award. Bellwether award criteria include solving a critical problem with an innovative response that is replicable, scalable, and equity-focused, and demonstrates data-proven success. Showcase winners are selected based on a short presentation of their innovative program, a table poster explaining each criteria judged, and the university representative’s ability to comprehensively answer all questions related to the program. Senior practitioners and political influencers serve as judges for both competitions.

What does innovation look like?

An artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that maximizes the efficiency and effectiveness of academic and student support staff is an example of an award-winning submission. Other examples include: a project manager to facilitate cross-campus collaboration on new technologies; a training program for the reintegration of offenders into trades, business and health care; an entrepreneurial initiative to develop minority, micro, veteran, bilingual and women-owned businesses; and an 18-week workforce development program with a 93% employment rate.

The 2022 Bellwether Award winners were:

• Community College of Baltimore County (MD) won the award for its submission, General Education as a Mechanism to Promote Equitable Access to High Impact Practices, in the Education Programs and Services category.

• Houston (TX) Community College won the award for its submission, Celebrating Entrepreneurship: The Foundation of America’s Economy! in the Workforce Development Award category.

• Ocean County (NJ) College won the award for its submission, Meet Reggie: The AI ​​Chatbot Transforming Ocean County College, in the Planning, Governance and Finance category.

It’s more than a competition

Dr. Maya Durnovo, director of entrepreneurship at Houston Community College, said her university is eager to compete for the prestigious award.

“We knew that even if we didn’t win, we would learn a lot from the other colleges in attendance by looking at best practices from around the country,” says Dr. Joaquin G. Martinez, provost and vice president of education at the Community. College of Baltimore County (CCBC), former winner of the Bellweather Awards.

Outstanding Thesis Award

The inaugural Outstanding Thesis Award competition was well received as an addition to the consortium’s flagship event. Dr. Pamela Stegeman won the award for her thesis entitled Features of Collaborative Community College/Economic Development Organization Partnerships: A Multiple Case Study. Stegeman is an associate professor at College of the Desert. She received her doctorate from the Community College Leadership Program at Kansas State University. Bellwether presented Stegeman’s thesis study, which provided insight into the key factors that contribute to maintaining long-lasting partnerships between community colleges and economic development organizations.

Good ideas

“The Alamo Colleges have been wonderful co-hosts, and I have been very impressed with the many innovative applications from our colleagues,” says Dr. Gary Racioppi, Vice President of Student Affairs for Ocean County College. The Bellwether College Consortium is hosted and supported by Alamo Colleges District in San Antonio. Organizers plan to announce the opening of the 2023 Bellwether Award competition submission portal at bellwethercollegeconsortium.com.

Dr. Rose M. Martinez is director of the Bellwether College Consortium.

The Center Roueche Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.

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