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A Personal Touch Helps Texas Pathways Coaches Succeed

July 1, 2019

Practices & Centers

By Jenn Giffels

Implementing major changes at a college is a tough job. But administrators, faculty, and staff may find it easier to effect change if they have the support of coaches who build relationships with them.

The Texas Success Center is well aware of the important role coaches play in helping colleges move in new directions.

Affiliated with the Texas Association of Community Colleges and part of the national Student Success Center (SSC) Network, which is managed by JFF, the Texas Success Center employs institutional coaches as part of its Texas Pathways strategy to help Texas’s 50 community colleges bolster student success. In all, 14 coaches work with the community colleges involved in the Texas Pathways’ work.

Institutional coaches are people who support a college’s transformation process. They’re usually from outside of the college they’re coaching but have knowledge of the national, state, and local postsecondary landscapes. They often have formed this knowledge through their own institutional work.

At the Texas Success Center, coaches support the organization’s efforts to “build the readiness and capacity for Texas community colleges to design and implement structured academic and career pathways for all students,” says Cynthia Ferrell, PhD, the Center’s vice president.

As reported in an earlier JFF blog post, institutional coaching is part of an ongoing effort to build capacity to help colleges enact complex changes.

Coaches get to know the people and institutions they’re supporting—they listen to the intimate stories and learn about the colleges’ diverse cultures. That approach helps them honor each school’s unique journey as they offer guidance based on examples from elsewhere.

We believe in the power of a network and the sharing across Centers...

Cynthia Ferrell, Texas Success Center

Ferrell notes that coaching builds on crucial past work. “We’re all about bringing coherence to the student success agenda, which means that we’re honoring a lot of really good work that came before guided pathways,” she says. “If we want to facilitate real, lasting systemic change in the institutions, then we need to get really involved with them.”

Referencing management expert Ronald Heifetz’s theory of adaptive leadership, Texas Success Center Director Kristi Short, EdD, says, “At the heart of adaptive challenges are people, and adaptive work takes time because faculty, staff, and administrators must determine which institutional practices and elements of culture to retain and which to let go.”

Many Centers in the SSC Network borrow elements from other states’ models. The Texas Success Center believes that thoughtful coaching strategies can deepen the impact of guided pathways reforms as coaches facilitate change management and provide content expertise and strategic advice.

“We believe in the power of a network and the sharing across Centers,” Ferrell explains. “We are all better off for the sharing and encouraging one another to serve our colleges the best we can. It’s part of our Network values.”

JFF's Coaching Pilot
Lessons learned

The Texas Way

The Texas Success Center based its coaching model on the state’s earlier work with national efforts such as Achieving the Dream and the American Association of Community Colleges Pathways Project. The Center participated in JFF’s Coaching Pilot Project from 2017 to 2018, and in JFF’s SSC Network Coaching Program from 2018 to 2020.

Texas has relied on a cadre of in-state and out-of-state coaches to help colleges with guided pathways reforms since 2016. Ferrell says coaching makes sense for Texas because “coaching has a history in Texas of being something that colleges embrace and welcome.”

As Texas officials expand the state’s program, they are striving to make coaching flexible. “We wanted all 50 community colleges to be included, which meant we had to have different varieties of support,” Ferrell explains. For example, she says, “we started with remote coaching . . . then we knew we needed site-visit coaching. [But] the expectation wasn’t that everybody would need a new site-visit coach.”

At the conclusion of its Coaching Pilot Project with JFF, the Texas Success Center put together a coaching manual that outlines best practices. The manual’s primary purpose is to ensure that all Texas coaches follow a common model, but it’s also a valuable resource for anyone in the field.

Among other things, the manual highlights the Texas Success Center’s use of data to inform the design of coaching models. Specifically, data from the Guided Pathways Scale of Adoption Assessment (download document), an institutional self-assessment tool from the Community College Research Center, provides useful information. Armed with Scale of Adoption Assessment results, coaches “know where their colleges are and in many cases know that they still have to do some of that fundamental work to get them to see the paradigm shift involved with pathways,” Short says.

Here are some highlights of the Texas coaching model from the Texas Pathways Coaching Manual.


  • The coaches come from many backgrounds and have a deep understanding of postsecondary education, and often a wealth of institutional knowledge, from past and current roles. Coaches are familiar with Texas community colleges and have “extensive knowledge of the college completion and equity agenda” as well as “experience supporting colleges as they design and implement guided pathways at scale.”


  • Coaches act as “critical friends” who ask hard questions, offer alternative ways of looking at data, and reveal fundamental beliefs that shape how institutions operate. Coaches are partners; they are not experts on everything, therapists, or decision makers.


  • In the past, coaches met with college teams only at statewide meetings and otherwise communicated via email and phone. They now also visit colleges in person.


  • The Texas Success Center sets the vision, providing a coherent strategy and guidance for coaches. The coaches provide feedback to the Center about successes and challenges at colleges, thus bridging college-level and state-level work.

JFF's SSC Network
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What Lies Ahead

The Texas Success Center is looking into more ways to use institutional and state assessment data to support coaches. The Center is also using data to monitor the effectiveness of its coaching services.

In addition, the Center’s training for coaches now emphasizes community building. During their orientation, coaches are encouraged to be more hands-on, and Short says, “we talk more about strategies rather than review information about colleges.”

As its coaching model matures, the Center is emphasizing equity to ensure that coaches are equipped to lead colleges through difficult but important conversations about adopting new practices to be more equitable for all students.

The Center also continues to share with and learn from other Centers in the SSC Network.

For more information about the Texas Success Center’s coaching model, please see the Texas Pathways Coaching Manual (click here to find it on the Center’s website). Additionally, check out this report by Chris Baldwin on the Texas Success Center and guided pathways.


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