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Students Gain an Academic Lifeline Through CASAS Grant Program

What do you get when you ask students to share thoughts about their academic experience that might be awkward or difficult to admit?

For coordinators of the Center for Academic Success and Accessibility Services (CASAS) program at Southern, you get real insight. You also get evidence that CASAS, a $2.1 million grant program nearing the end of funding, is doing a genuine service. That’s all the proof the CASAS team needs to encourage students who haven’t used the center. Their message: check it out.

CASAS offers academic coaching, tutoring, English language support, and other services. In promoting equal access to the collegiate learning environment, CASAS helps students excel academically and socially.

Bianca Chernowsky, ’24, academic coach coordinator for CASAS, helped conduct the “elephant in the room” exercise last year to seek feedback from students. Coordinators asked students to jot down their feedback on “elephant” printouts and tack their anonymous comments onto a large whiteboard.

Afterward, when the CASAS team reviewed the comments, Chernowsky was thunderstruck. “It made me realize a lot of students rely on this for support, and not necessarily just academic support,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh wow. Students are dealing with a lot, and they still come here.’”

The CASAS program began five years ago, through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Its premise is to promote education retention through collaborative, high-impact services.

CASAS Director Katie De Oliveira wrote the grant, which introduced a plethora of improved services and opportunities for students in need. In particular, the program aims to help “at risk” students who may struggle and potentially opt out of college altogether without support to help them over their obstacles.

Today, CASAS has become a main hub for students, De Oliveira said. It’s more than an academic service. It’s a one-stop shop to support students in a host of ways. It works to get students back on track when they’ve become overwhelmed or fallen behind and don’t know where to turn.

For starters, CASAS implemented a comprehensive early alert system with many outreach points where the signs of difficulty arise. CASAS works with the dean of students, the first point of contact for any alert. The dean will either send the identified student to CASAS or to an adviser.

“Before, we saw mid-term grades and if a student had a D or an F, we would reach out, but if it’s late in the semester, it’s too late to change the trajectory. Now we reach out in Week 3, when Add-Drop is done. We’ll ask, what do you need? How can we help you? Do you need money for books? Are you having technology issues?”

Asking those kinds of questions in a supportive outreach can make or break a student’s success path, De Oliveira said.

“We follow up based on what their needs are. If they don’t have money for books, how on earth can they be successful?” De Oliveira said.

The data shows that the early alert system is helping. Alerts and continued interventions to support students continue to grow. Students identified in a Week 5 progress report with an academic concern who came to CASAS had a 95% persistence rate. Students identified in a Week 11 progress report who responded yielded a 78% persistence rate with a 2.6% increase in GPA. Those students who responded to the alert had an average GPA of 3.53 versus a 1.39 for those who did not respond to the alert. 

“We didn’t have an alert system in place before, so if a student wasn’t doing well in a class, or something was a concern, faculty had to send students somewhere or to the dean of students. This has allowed for more faculty to become more involved in better supporting the students,” De Oliveira said.

As the grant approaches the end of funding at the end of September, the program has demonstrated success in quantifiable ways. The numbers, as they say, don’t lie.

For starters, the sheer participation of students using any of the multitude of services at CASAS in the 2022-2023 academic year was more than 40,000. In addition:

  • The 2022-2023 academic year CASAS had over 5,000 Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) visits with a 90.9% persistence rate and a 1.4% increase in cumulative GPA for those students who attended PALS sessions.
  • Students who attended three or more tutoring sessions in CASAS had a 95.5% persistence rate.
  • Overall, the students who responded to any alert issued within the early alert system had an 80% persistence rate and an overall average 3.9% GPA increase. 
  • Overall, any service in CASAS a student attended, yielded an 85% persistence rate or higher.

De Oliveira summed up the program’s superpower in one word: peers. CASAS employs more than 200 students as tutors, PALS, proctors, coaches, navigators, MAP Leaders and notetakers. The CASAS employees have a 98% persistence rate.

The peer factor works, Chernowsky said, because the students seeking support find kindred spirits in the peer coaches with whom they connect.

“It’s peer to peer, we’ve been through the same things, and we understand what they’re going through,” Chernowsky said. “We say, ‘We’ll work with you to get through that.’ We’re all going through the same thing – like midterms or finals.”

The CASAS summer institute has been another aspect of the program’s success. Yarelis Canales, academic intervention program coordinator, helps lead the initiatives on the grant.

The summer program prepares upcoming first-year students for the rigors of college courses. The institute conducts sessions that include academic success strategies and community scholarship. Because math has a high withdrawal rate, the summer institute also focuses on algebra, pre-algebra, geometry, and assorted topics as a precursor to the higher-level courses at Southern.

The goal is to make students feel ready for the transition to set them up for success in their first semester, Canales said. “Some were excited to register for summer institute. They wanted to be as prepared as possible. Others self-indicated that math was a problem area for them, and they had anxiety coming into college. They do it as a way to get ahead.”

Last year’s summer institute hosted its largest group ever. Of those who attended, 68% had a fall GPA higher than a 3.0; 80% of the students who completed the summer institute had a fall GPA of a 2.5 or higher. 

Canales said the CASAS team’s goal is to build upon the grant program to make it sustainable. There’s always more to do, she said, but the buy-in from professors and faculty has given the program a sturdy foundation on which to build.

“I’ve met with students mid-semester who feel low. They were missing assignments. By the end of the semester, they realized they had resilience. They came out with new strategies and a new outlook on their college education,” Canales said.

Canales said that many students who reach out to CASAS have been through their first-year seminar courses, orientation and other resources. But in the transition to college life, those support systems can become a blur or faded memory as the demands of coursework and other responsibilities pile on.

“There’s a sense of relief that there’s a support system there that can help them through that,” Canales said. “Even if we don’t have an answer for them right away, we work with the student to find that answer together.”

For more information about CASAS, visit their website or contact Katie De Oliveira at deoliveirak1@southernct.edu or (203) 392-5186.


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