Odessa College announced Friday that it has received the 2018 Leah Meyer Austin Award, the highest honor awarded by community college reform leader Achieving the Dream.

The award recognizes institutions that have demonstrated outstanding progress in designing a student-focused culture and aligning institutional strategies to promote student success.

This year’s award, sponsored by The Kresge Foundation is accompanied by a $25,000 prize for each college, a news release said.

The award was presented Feb. 20 at the Achieve the Dream 2018 Annual Conference in Nashville, Tenn. The award means national recognition for OC. Texarkana also received the 2018 Leah Meyer Austin Award.

At a news conference in the lobby of the Saulsbury Campus Center, Odessa College President Gregory Williams said these types of monetary awards are put into an innovation fund to spur more ideas from faculty and the OC team that will continue to move the college forward.

“We don’t have the secret sauce, but we’re still trying to make it and we’re still trying to look for all the ingredients,” Williams said.

The college is continuing to work toward the Aspen Prize, but Williams said it’s not about that.

“… We want to win every one that we can, but it’s about the work. It’s about each and every student getting better, feeling better about themselves and knowing we can do this. We can do this. That makes our entire community better,” he said.

Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness Don Wood wrote the application. Wood said there were about 250 community colleges who were invited to apply for it and it was based on the success those schools had been having over the previous three years.

“It was thrilling and I feel like one of the exciting things about writing an application like this is that you actually get to present your story. You tell your story and it’s incredibly rewarding that others really find our story compelling. They find our story exciting and what was super-cool is they find our story award winning,” Wood said.

Information from OC said the college nearly doubled its three-year graduation rate by 11 percentage points from 12 percent and 23 percent for the 2009 cohort and the 2014 cohort, respectively.

The college also increased graduation rates for Hispanic students by 15 percentage points from 10 percent for the 2009 cohort to 25 percent for the 2014 cohort. With Hispanic students graduating in higher numbers than white students, the college has closed its equity gap, the information said.

Odessa College began the Drop Rate Improvement Program to strengthen the connection between each course instructor and student and reduced the length of each semester from 16 to eight weeks to accommodate students’ schedules and create and sustain momentum toward completion, the information said.

With “U Can’t Touch This” playing at the beginning of the news conference and afterward, Odessa College President Gregory Williams said the award was a wonderful opportunity for Odessa College to be recognized by one of the most important organizations in the student success movement for community colleges.

“I think it continues to demonstrate the hard work that’s being done by our people and the very important work. It’s wonderful that we can share with our community that their investment is really paying off. We’ve asked a lot of our community. We’ve asked a lot of our taxpayers and we want to give them a tremendous return,” Williams said. “I think we’re doing that, not only through the programs we’re offering but through the students who come through Odessa College and who are prepared to go to work do great things, continue to learn” and contribute back to the community.

For the future, Williams said OC wants to continue to get better and focus on ways to become an “even better version” of itself.

“Our students deserve that because not only are we selling and sending this message locally, but other colleges look to Odessa College now as a leader college, as a Leah Meyer Austin Award winner, as an Aspen finalist (and) as an Aspen prize winner. Other colleges look to us to show them the way, to show them other ways to do this business,” Williams said.

For a long time, Williams said higher education at the community college level was not showing the advancements and improvements that were needed.

“We’ve been able to be a part of the great forward momentum that’s occurring. There are others who are doing that as well, but we’re part of the leadership in that regard,” Williams said.