Providence Housing Authority - Employment Support Center

Judy Walker

Department of Special Projects

June 25, 1999

Project Context:

We initiated the practitioner research project in December of 1998. We set out with what we thought was a fairly simple question: What factors influence a student's motivation to enroll in and maintain a certain rate of attendance in GED and ESL classes at the Providence Housing Authority's Employment Support Center? The Center houses two twenty hour per week classes (one GED and one ESL) that run from September to June. Classes have open enrollment and are multi-leveled. Our student population in comprised of all public housing and Section 8 residents. Approximately 70% of the students receive welfare assistance and the other 30% claim other forms of income.


On the outset, we had ambitiously expected to look at three groups of students from these classes, those that applied but never enrolled or attended, those that attended but maintained only marginal or sporadic attendance rates (Below 75 % attendance) and those who attended and maintained moderate to high attendance rates (above 75% attendance). Quickly, with the assistance of the review process we undertook in our monthly researcher group activities, we streamlined our research question to focus on only two specific student groups. The groups that we concentrated on were:


Students who maintain a moderate to high attendance rate (at least 75% attendance.)

Students who enrolled but left, or had poor to sporadic attendance (below 75% attendance).


Also with the assistance of feedback from our peer group of researchers, we tried to be more aware of our misconception in equating the student's attendance rate with the level of motivation that the student had. Although we maintained our grouping of students in attendance rate categories, we attempted to see this rate of attendance as effected by motivation but not as directly linked as we had assumed when originally formulating of our research question.


With our research question stramlined and better directed, we next set our energies on developing a survey instrument that would reveal information that could assist us in answering our question. Most important in our survey was:

What is a student's intention when applying for class?

What factors affected their decision to stay in or leave the class?

From where did they draw support for their educational endeavors?

Here, we also incorporated the input from our monthly reseracher group meetings into the creastion of the survey. Most important was the group's suggestion to keep the research more qualitative than quantitative. To that end we decided to administer the surveys orally. Each question had space for an open, first impression response followed by prewritten responses that were then rated on a scale of one to three. This gave the students more room to express ideas that we may have not incorporated in a our pre-made responses. This also gave the opportunity to the survey administrator to capture unfettered responses that can not be captured by flat survey replies.


In anticipation of the survey we sent letters to 15 students who had recently left class inviting them to participate in the survey. The response to these letters was limited. From the 15 letters, we received four responses. One of those four was coincidental and not precipitated by the letter we sent. This raised a large question in our minds about how we conduct follow-up of students who leave class. As an administrator and not a teacher, I pride myself on the positive rapport I keep with current and past students. I believe as case managers it is our responsibility to do so. Nevertheless, I was hard pressed to find any other students who had left class and would be willing to come here for 20 minutes to share their thoughts on a few survey questions. This will certainly make me more aware of my tracking efforts in the future.


We also spoke to students in each class room and explained the research we were conducting. We invited them to share their thoughts in the surveying process. Most students were quite pleased to share their ideas and comments. Only a few were reluctant or refused to participate altogether.


Within two months we had completed the surveying of 23 students. It was more time consuming than anticipated. Each survey required at least 30 minutes to be administered. We attribute this to the students' desire to share a bit of their own stories and relate why they are or are not in class today. Students' candid remarks and vivid descriptions of their attempts to stay in class have lent to a rich collection of observations.


The open responses and raw data from these surveys were then entered into a data base that allowed it to be more easily manipulated and analyzed. The attendance rate of each responder was then calculated. To our surprise, only four out of the 23 respondents fell over our determining line of 75% attendance. Since the median attendance rate was 65%, we changed our original dividing line and grouped the respondents at this point.


At the same time, discussion groups were held with students from each class. They were asked, why do you think some students stay and some leave? What would you tell a student who has had trouble attending in the past but wants to return and have success in the program? The responses elicited by this discussion helped reinforce some of the findings in the survey. Finally, two of the three teachers completed the same survey to contrast the perceptions of staff at the center and the ideas expressed by their students



From a simple seven question survey, we collected more data than we could ever hope to analyze. To narrow our analysis, we began by focusing specifically on the highest responses to each question and any difference we could find between respondents with attendance above and below 65%. Some examples are highlighted below.


Question 1

When asked why they decided to apply for and enroll in the class, 18 out of 23 students responded that a having a personal goal was a major influence in their applying to class. The second and third highest categories that were cited as major influences were the students' hope to find a job and their hope to go to college. Of the 23 respondents, nine said that a major influence was their hope that the class would help them find the job, and 8 respondents said that a major influence was their hope that the class would help them get into college.


There is little contrast found between the two attendance groups when choosing a personal goal as a major influence to apply to class. Of the 18 respondents 11 are from the higher attendance group and 9 are from the lower attendance group. This small difference of 2 seems insignificant in such a small pool of respondents. Students with poor to sporadic attendance were more likely to cite college as a major influence whereas students with moderate to high attendance were more likely to cite finding a job as a major influence.

Question 2

Question two asked students who had stayed in class, what had influenced or helped them to do so. Four students did not respond to this question because they had not stayed in class. Many factors rated high among the replying students. Seventeen of the 19 respondents cited their relationship with the teacher and 16 of 19 cited positive support as a major influence. A relationship with the teacher was a major influence for 90% of students in both attendance groups. In contrast, support was sited 100% of the time among students with moderate to high attendance whereas it was only sited 62% of the time among students with lower attendance rates.


Other reasons commonly cited in question 2 were the feeling of success, computers in the class and a convenient schedule. Under the category of a feeling of success, a contrast similar to that which had occurred in the responses to the positive support factor was seen between the responses of the two attendance groups. Only 50% of poor or sporadic attendees replied that a feeling of success was a major influence in their staying in class whereas 80% of attendees with higher attendance rates cited this as a major influence.


These initial observations lead us to look for similar patterns in other questions. Specifically, a similarity in the response to question four which asked students who in their life supported their educational plans the most. Of the moderate to high attendees, 75% replied that the teacher was a major support of their goals. Only 33% of the poor or sporadic attendees said the same.


Question 7

These observations about support and success are important to the analysis of the responses question 7, the final question . It asked, what is the most valuable thing that you wish to gain or have gained from adult education classes? The overwhelming response was language skills. This was a response that we expected. It demonstrated that the students have very practical intentions. The second item most commonly mentioned as having great value was a feeling of success. This was rated high by students in both groups but actually rated more often as a thing of great value among students with lower attendance rates.


The above observations can be grouped to form to larger observations that have helped us in the analysis and conclusion portion of our project:


1. Most students, despite attendance rate, agreed that they applied to ESL or GED classes at the Employment Support Center because of a personal goal. They also agreed that a valuable outcome of the class has been or would be a feeling of success. Nevertheless only students in the higher attendance group said that a feeling of success was a factor kept them in school.


2. Most students, despite attendance rate, agreed that their relationship with their teacher was a major reason for staying in class. But only students with moderate to high attendance rates cited their teacher as a major source of support in their educational goals. They were also more likely to mention support as a major reason for staying in class.


These statistical observations are also supported by the more open responses given by students taking the survey or students responding to questions in the focus groups. One student expressed her anxiety about failure by telling how she had left two different GED classes because she had failing tests. She said that it was the advice of her mother that kept her coming to class. Her mother told her to remember John F. Kennedy Jr. who had failed the bar exams many times, but finally passed it on his third or fourth time. She figured if he could do that publicly, she could find the strength to fight her more private uphill battle. Unfortunately, she didn't find this strength and left class in April. Another student who had left class for a year, returned for two months, and left again, said that if she didn't get her GED by June, she wasn't going to try again. She said, "If I don't make it this time don't bother sending me anything again because I won't come."


Students with moderate to high attendance at times also expressed these doubts. When asked why she stayed in class, a student with a high attendance rate described herself as "holding on tightly" as if she were climbing a rope and only reached half way when her muscles began to tired. She said, "If I let go this time, I know I won't start again."


These stories are contrasted by the story of a student who has maintained moderate attendance despite the fact she has learned at a slower rate than the other students. "Why are they in such a rush?" she asked. She said that she tried to set an example for other students by being the longest lasting student who never gave up. But in the focus group, she expressed an exasperation with her fellow students who left class. She said, "They have to meet their dead end streets," and, "They have to learn to work at their own pace and not try to keep with what someone else is doing. If I tried to keep up with everyone in this class, I would have left long ago." This student's ability to stay in class despite her slow progress may be in her ability to note other successes. She says in her survey, "I look back on my papers from when I started class. I used to write so small. Now I write big. I've changed a lot".


The information highlighted by the data raises many important questions:

Students did talk about their personal goals. Their goals were broad. When asked, "Why did you apply?", most answered the first response part of the question with, "I want to get my GED." or "I want to learn more English", or "I want to get on with my life". Only when pressed further would respondents mention specific examples.


Nevertheless, it seems that the students in both attendance groups are similarly motivated by the goals that they have. If their motivation comes from such a broad and long term goal, how will they find themselves nearing it? Maybe we need to help students make interim goals. It takes a long time to earn a GED or to learn English. What milestones can they set on the way to this goal? It appears that we have been falling short in initial goal planning activities. In the first few weeks we try so hard to find out where they are educationally, we forget to ask where they want to be.


Nevertheless, many of the students with higher attendance rates say that the feeling of success helps them to keep coming to class. Is this an intrinsic sense that they developed? Is it something they found through the support of their teachers? Regrettably we never asked them what success means to them. We never asked how they measure their success. These would be important questions for further research.


Although left with many new questions, we can conclude that success and support go hand in hand. All students have goals motivating their participation in class. Some are finding success and some are not. Some find strong support, and some do not. If we can better address the goals of those students who have a harder time coming to school every day, we can help strengthen a major source behind their motivation



(Survey and Raw Data)


Practitioner Research Project Survey 1999


Demographic Information:

How old are you?

__ 18-25

__ 26-35

__ 36-45

__ 46+


What is your Gender?

__ Male

__ Female


How many people are in your family including yourself?

__ 1

__ 2

__ 3

__ 4

__ 5

__ 6


What is your status in your family?

__ Parent in a one parent family

__ Parent in a 2 parent family

__ Parent living in your parent's home

__ Single with no children

__ Married with no children

__ Not disclosed


What class did you apply for?

__ ESL

__ GED


Have you taken an Adult Education course in the past?

__ Yes

__ No


If yes, for how long?

__ 0-3 months

__ 3-6 months

__ 6 months - 1 year

__ 1 year +

Survey Questions


1. Why did you fill out the application for classes at the ESC?



Rate these factors influencing your decision: (using a scale of 1 to 3; 1 = not an influence, 2 = somewhat of an influence and 3 = a major influence).


 Not an influence Somewhat of an influence A major influence


I need the class to find a job

I need the class to go to college

I have to do something for welfare

My friend is doing it

It's part of a personal goal

I was bored

I was curious

Other ______________


2. If you have remained in the class, why have you done so?



Rate these factors influencing your reason to remain in class:


 Not an influence Somewhat of an influence A major influence


Quality of the course

Attractive facility

Location of facility

Computers in class

Good class schedule

Good relationship with teacher

Class friendships

Positive support

Feeling of success

No lack of support services

Other _____________________



3. If you have left class, why did you leave?



Rate these factors influencing your reason to leave class:


 Not an influence Somewhat of an influence A major influence


Quality of the course

Bad school facility

Location of facility

Computers in class

Schedule of class

Bad relationship with teacher

No class friendships

No support


 Not an influence Somewhat of an influence A major influence


No feeling of success

Class was too hard

Lack of Transportation

Lost my childcare

Had to start working

Poor Health

Didnít have the time

Family Problems


Enrolled in other course



4. Who in your life supports your education plans the most?



Rate these following people as being a support to you with you educational plans.

 Not supportive Some Support Very Supportive






Family Member


Social Worker

Other ____________



5. Is there anyone in your life who is an obstacle to you taking classes?



Rate these following people as being an obstacle to you with you educational plans.

 Not an obstacle Slight obstacle Big obstacle





Family Member


Social Worker

Other _____________



6. What may prevent you from participating in additional training or educational programs?




Rate these factors on their possibility of preventing you to participate in educational programs in the future:


 Won't prevent me May prevent me Will prevent me


Family Responsibility

Forced to work by welfare

Not aware of programs at my level



Lose my childcare

Other __________



7. What is the most valuable thing you have gained or want to gain from participating in adult education classes?


Rate these items in their value

 Not valuable Somewhat valuable Very valuable


Language Skills

Work Skills

Regular Attendance


Support Network


Feeling of accomplishment

Other _______________

ESL Question 1

a b c d e f g

to learn pronunciation 1 1 1 2 2 2 1

Got a letter twice. Decided to fill it out 2 2 1 1 3 1 1

Wants to learn more English 2 2 2 1 2 2 1

I was referred here by the manager 3 3 3 1 3 3 1

To learn more English- Get a job 2 1 1 1 3 2 1

understand more English 3 1 1 1 2 1 1

I want to learn English to go to college 2 3 1 1 3 1 1

Wants to learn to speak and write - also studying 2 2 1 1 3 3 2

GED question 1

wanted to give it one more shot - this is close by 2 1 2 1 3 1

I want a better future ged 2 1 1 1 3 1 1

I needed help to get my GED 2 1 1 1 2 3 2

want to finish my ged 1 1 2 1 2 1 1

I was bored and envious of people moving ahead 3 3 1 2 3 2 1

It was a good opportunity to get my GED 1 3 1 1 3 1

Tired of prolongng GED - I want to get it over with

GED/closer location/wanted to learn more

GED/closer, etc.

to advance me education - find a job

It's my goal - something I always wanted to do - a part that was missing from me

Class is close; I need my GED

I was interested in getting my GED

To better my English and look for a job

Question 2


Like class better/like having 3 2 2 2 2 3 1 2 3 1

English speaking teacher


I like it/ I think I've learned a lot

I like it 2 2 2 3 3 3 3 3 2 1

I like the teacher and the people - I like learning the

Like the teacher/like sharing with other students

responsibility to class and teacher

Because I want to learn/I love the computer

personal motivation 3 2 2 2 2 3 3 3 3 2

not applicable 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

applicable 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

I know I have to come to 3 1 1 3 2 3 3 2 1 1

get on with my futures

friendly atmosphere 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 2

I'm doing it for my kids - its 3 1 2 3 3 3 2 3 2 2

important to accomplish

not applicable 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

I like class and the teacher 3 3 2 3 3 3 1 3 3 1

Bored at home 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 1

Good class/I'm not giving up 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 3 2 1

gives you the courage to go forward -

Feel good about myself - 3 1 3 3 3 3 2 3 3 1

atmosphere and people are

Want to stick with it for me 2 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3

- and for an example for my

I liked the ESL class - it was good

I'm determined to get my GED 3 2 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3

Question 3


Personal prblems

not applicable

I moved AND I thought I was ready to take the tests

lack of daycare

embarased because of my absenses

left class last fall to work

financial reasons

Question 4

myself 3 1 1 1 1 2 1 1

self 3 1 1 3 1 3 3 1

my husband 2 3 3 1 3 2 3 1

my friend 3 1 1 1 3 3 2 1

kids/fiance 2 3 3 3 1 2 3 1

self 3 1 1 2 1 2 2 1

my wife/sister-in-law/son's 2 3 1 3 2 3 3 2


my boyfriend 3 3 2 2 1 1 1 1

no one - maybe my friend 2 2 3 1 3 1 1 1

mom-mother-in-law 3 3 1 3 1 3 2 1

no one 3 1 2 1 2 1 2 1

Husband 3 3 3 1 3 1 3 1

My son 3 1 3 3 1 1 2 1

My Husband 3 3 3 1 1 3 2 1

my daughters - want to help them in school 2 1 3 1 1 1 3 1

noone 2 1 1 3 2 1 2 1

My mom keeps me going by saying there will always be 3 1 3 3 1 3 3 3

husband 3 3 1 2 1 1 3 1

The teacher 3 2 1 1 1 1 3 3

no one - only me 3 1 2 1 1 1 3 1

Husband 3 3 3 3 2 3 3 1

self 3 1 3 2 2 1 3 1

my kids 3 1 3 3 3 3 3 1

Question 6

Class Attend ID Q6 a6 b6 c6 d6 e6 f6 g6

My age- tiring of my mind 2 1 1 1 2 1 1

If my daughter get all day kindergarten 1 3 1 1 1 1 3

Nothing 1 2 1 1 1 1 1

If I get sick 1 1 1 1 2 1 1

Nothing 1 2 1 1 1 1 1

nothing 1 3 1 1 1 1 2

Nothing 1 1 1 2 2 1 1

my health 1 2 2 1 2 1 1

my health 1 2 1 1 2 1 1

problems with my kids

Earn my GED 3 3 3 3 1 2 2 3

Knowledge - everything is new to me again 1 3 3 2 2 3 2 3

To read and write 1 3 2 1 1 2 2 2

GED 3 3 3 2 1 3 3 3

Learning English for college 1 3 2 3 3 3 3 3

Writing more 1 3 2 2 1 1 3 2

to learn to speak an read 1 3 2 2 2 2 2 3

Get my GED 3 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

pass my GED 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3

My GED 3 3 3 3 3 2 3 3


[hard copy of these tables can be obtained through LR/RI.]

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