Darton officials focus on retention rate

Darton College President Peter Sireno talks about student housing during his State of Darton College address Monday morning in the school's theater.

Darton College President Peter Sireno talks about student housing during his State of Darton College address Monday morning in the school's theater.

ALBANY, Ga. -- Although Darton College's enrollment increased 17 percent over last year and has grown 119 percent the last decade, officials at the two-year University System of Georgia school want to do a better job of retaining students.

By improving the retention rate, officials told staff members at Monday morning's State of Darton College address that they could also significantly improve the school's graduation rate.

"We're a two-year college with a three-year graduation rate," Vice President of Student Affairs Gary Barnette said to crowd. "Only one out of 10 (of our students) graduate."

However, Barnette later told The Herald, "About half of our students graduate eventually with Darton or in the (University) System (of Georgia)."

Retaining students has become a continual goal of colleges across the country, Barnette said. When his staff went on the Internet to search for "retention strategies," more than 8 million stories popped up.

To aggressively attack the problem, Darton will initiate a three-year retention improvement plan to help assist freshman, athletes and MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) students in setting clear and attainable career goals. They will also help them make more informed decisions about deciding their major. For example, students will need to do a field interview with someone in their chosen field of study.

They will also try to head off trouble earlier in the semester. To do this, Darton will have a computer assisted early warning, early intervention system. Struggling students will be alerted via e-mail at two, five, eight and 12 weeks about their progress.

Professors and instructors will fill out an e-mail that is sent to the student and adviser to alert the student of their class status. Staff members' options include assignments not submitted; disruptive behavior; failing tests, exams, quizzes; tardy for class; work completed late; work not completed; and work unsatisfactory.

"Students will then have to e-mail their instructors on what they will do to fix the problems," Barnette told the audience.

One of the staff members asked how they would force students to respond to an e-mail. Barnette said the school would cut off their privileges at the new student center by turning off their card swipe and not responding to their financial aid request.

"I know a lot of you think we should be doing this anyway, but we have students that don't take accountability for their actions and they need to learn," said Barnette, who has worked at the school for 16 years. "We're not limiting a student with a D to the student center. We're trying to keep the students away from the student center who aren't attending classes."

Since this is the first semester for the early warning, early intervention system, Barnette told the crowd that the system would be a work in progress. He also noted that "we may put in in place for all our students" in the future.

"We're taking a stab at this like a lot of places are," he said. "At the end of the semester, we're going to make changes and tighten it up and make it better. We want this to be productive. We're not doing this as an exercise."

Besides a lot of students not attending classes regularly, Barnette said too many students arrive at Darton with poor academic skills such as how to take notes, study, how long to study and have poor testing skills. The students frequently have reading, writing and math skills below collegiate levels. More than half are in one or more Learning Support courses. Students frequently have an "enormous dependency" on financial aid and typically drop out after their first semester or year if they have a low grade-point average.

"If you look at that half that need Learning Support, 93 percent need math support," he said after his presentation.

Darton Chief Information Officer Margaret Brass liked Barnette's new approach to retention.

"We really are trying to hit it aggressively to get ahead of the problems in the beginning to encourage the students to help themselves," said Brass, a 25-year employee. "They're getting the information and they need to tell us what they're doing to resolve the issues."

Darton President Peter Sireno alerted the faculty about the new program earlier in the morning when he gave his State of Darton College address. He told the faculty that in the school's 10-year plan the school is projected to increase its enrollment to 10,000 students. Darton also plans to add a track and field facility, an outdoor Olympic swimming pool with a diving well, a wrestling pavilion and student housing for an additional 1,500 student residents.

Sireno also touted the school's online education opportunities. He said nationally online education increased 16.9 percent between 2007 and '08 and that 25 percent of students were enrolled in at least one online course.

"As an indication of how far ahead Darton College is compared to the colleges and universities across our nation, 68 percent of our students take at least one online course," he said. "... I am proud of each and every one of you and I am proud of Darton College's role in the University System of Georgia, Southwest Georgia and Albany."

Kerri Johnson, Darton's director of its physical therapy assistant program, found Sireno's presentation "very motivating." Johnson's program has a 100 percent pass rate on the national board exam the past four years has grown 125 percent since she arrived in 2003.

"He has been a great leader with such an incredible vision," she said. "I think most would see him a bit over the top with it and yet Darton continues to keep growing. It is all good and to work here, and to be a part of it."

During the morning session, Darton introduced 35 new faculty and staff members. Six of those joined the student affairs department, five were added to the nursing division, another five in the athletics department and four to the police department. Darton has 410-415 total faculty and staff, full- and parttime.