Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Groundbreaking Cuyamaca College program lifting students to success

Alexander Kraft with Mark Twain at the UC Berkeley library
Alexander Kraft was one of those students who never excelled in math. Problem was, the Cuyamaca College English major had fared so poorly on standardized assessment tests that he needed to take multiple remedial math classes prior to enrolling in a college-level course needed to move on to a four-year university.  

In other words, a subject that was not his academic focus was threatening his aspirations of an English professor. 

Kraft found a solution at Cuyamaca College’s trailblazing Stats Academy, a one-semester, remedial math class that sets students up to flourish in a transfer-level statistics course. The program has been so successful that it is helping to throw the traditional approach to community college remediation on its head. 

Math requirements have always presented a barrier to my academic success,” he said. “I had to take a remedial math class before I could even take a transfer level math class, and it wasn’t something I was looking forward to. But the pedagogical approach in the Stats Academy was so effective in getting me to understand mathematical concepts.”


Kraft passed the course – and a subsequent transfer-level math class the following semester – with flying colors, transferred to UC Berkeley, graduated with honors in securing a bachelor’s degree in English, and is now on his way to an Ivy League university to earn his Ph.D. 

Remedial courses, also known as basic skills or below transfer-level classes, have long been the bane of college students. Research has shown that they exacerbate dropout rates by mistakenly placing some students in courses far below their ability. Community college officials for years have been looking for more effective pathways. 

The Stats Academy is providing a solution. Why? Because the Stats Academy shortens what could be a lengthy process to just one basic-skills – or remedial – course. Research shows that students are far more likely to drop out of college with each additional remedial course they’re required to take. 

For students who arrive at a community college seemingly underprepared to succeed in a college-level English or math class, ­in the past we set up layers of remedial courses to help them get up to speed and successfully complete the college-level gateway course,” said mathematics professor and Stats Academy founder Terrie Nichols. “However, these remedial pipelines, which were created with the best of intentions, are actually slamming the door shut for the majority of basic skills students. The Stats Academy program diminishes the effect of exit points in the basic skills math pipeline by shortening the pipeline to one basic skills course." 

In fact, African-American students who completed the Stats Academy are nearly 5 times more likely to successfully complete a college-level math class than their counterparts who go the traditional route, and Latino students were more than 4 times as likely to do so than their counterparts who took traditional basic skills courses, according to the college district’s research.  

“Former students frequently stop by to let me know that if it wasn’t for the Stats Academy, they would have never succeeded in college,” Nichols said. 

Kraft is among them. The 31-year-old San Diegan had dropped out of high school and was working a series of restaurant jobs when he decided to go back to school. His ultimate goal: to become a professor of English. Mathematics was more of an afterthought. 

“I wasn’t good in math anyway, and it had been so long since I had been in school that I knew I wasn’t going to be successful in a regular algebra class,” he said. 

The Stats Academy alleviated any anxieties.  

So what’s the secret? 

“We’re teaching math in a different way so that students are engaged in the learning process during class,” said Nichols. “They aren’t expected to watch an instructor write hieroglyphics on the board, take notes, go home and try to figure it out on their own.” 

Instead, students work on activities in small groups and Stats Academy instructors employ teacher-guided discovery in a learner-centered classroom. No one leaves class without understanding the latest concept. Concepts are tailored to student interest. A baseball fan, for example, will learn the foundations of understanding earned run averages and winning percentages, with some algebra sprinkled here and there. 

Nichols and others at Cuyamaca College are now ready to take the program further, teaching the pre-college level Stats Academy curriculum at the same time students are taking college-level math. “Students who are identified as underprepared for college-level math can concurrently enroll in a college-level course and a remedial support course,” she said.  

“I am hesitant to talk about alternate realities, but I could definitely envision the possibility of giving up after struggling through a couple remedial courses before even getting to a college-level class and just throwing my textbook through the window,” Kraft said. “The Stats Academy certainly played a critical role in keeping me on my path.”