Listening to my retired veterans, my 18-year-old recovering addicts, and my young parents trying to drive a wedge between themselves and poverty, I unearthed which social causes were worth my championing. And I learned how vastly different someone’s reasoning can be from my own, based on the environment in which he or she was raised.
. . . I was empowering ex-convicts to combat recidivism, encouraging low-income kids to persevere toward the four-year degree they’d always wanted. I was inspiring young mothers. And most important, I had the great privilege of convincing my students they they had not just valid, but vital, academic voices and that they were a critical part of intellectual discourse.
To teach community college is to have the constant sense that something is beginning to happen. We are kickstarting lives, in ways we will never entirely know.
Instructors don’t always see their influence, writes Oakland Community College (Michigan) professor Linda Boynton in Hidden Harvest. “Parents become positive role models for their children or other family members. Cycles of failure get broken. Students, once content with low-paying, unfulfilling jobs, begin to want more, which means they find the courage to face rejection instead of letting it control them.”
When RG Steel closed in Baltimore, laying off 2,000 well-paid steelworkers, Community College of Baltimore County offered workers a chance to retool. But college was a tough sell, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. ”It’s a group of men who think college is for other people,” says Brian Penn, who runs the college’s heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and energy technology program.
Generous government education benefits were enough to erase some people’s doubts about whether they belonged. But the paperwork and red tape between students and their tuition assistance prompted some to quit before they had even begun.
To get federal benefits, workers had to become full-time college students, an “intimidating” step, says Jesse Kessinger, who ran the college’s outreach. They had to untangle complex, conflicting county, state, federal and college requirements.
About 170, fewer than 10 percent of the final group of RG Steel employees, have signed up for classes so far. Those who have enrolled favor programs in truck driving, air-conditioning repair, welding and surgical technology.
Ronald Knauff, a third-generation steel man, completed a basic certificate in heating and air-conditioning repair. But the Department of Labor was late with his paperwork, so he missed the deadline for the advanced air-conditioning class. With only a basic certificate, he’s applied for 100 jobs with no success. Employers say they want experience even for entry-level jobs. He’s starting a welding program next month.
Natalie Dowell, who spent 16 years at RG Steel, most recently as a crane operator, is taking an eight-month program to learn how to disinfect, sterilize, and package surgical instruments. She’s optimistic about her job prospects, but won’t match her old pay of up to $23 an hour.
Bobby Curran hoped to earn an associate degree in chemical-dependency counseling, but he struggled with English and algebra classes. Three weeks into the semester, he gave up. Instead, he plans to train as a building-maintenance technician at North American Trade School, a for-profit that’s recruited 52 ex-steelworkers.
The course sounded reassuringly familiar to Mr. Curran—less intimidating than a community college, with its academic orientation and vast array of certificate, degree, and continuing-education choices. His buddies’ program covers how to fix air-conditioning and heating units, lay bricks, build roofs: “everything from A to Z about working on a house,” he says, encouraged.
The trade school markets its programs as a way to get back to work as quickly as possible, says John Meissner, director of admissions.
High-level remedial writing students are more likely to complete college-level English courses if they participate in Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), concludes a Community College Research Center follow-up study. Furthermore, ALP students were more likely than non-ALP students to persist to the next year.
ALP lets developmental students take classes with college-ready students. College-ready students in ALP English 101 did as well as similar students in wholly college-ready sections, but slightly lower subsequent college-level course enrollment and completion.
Most colleges use placement tests alone — usually ACCUPLACER or COMPASS — to determine whether students start in remedial or college-level courses, despite concerns about inaccurate placement, according to a National Assessment Governing Board study. Only a small minority of colleges use high school grades, class rank or other criteria to determine placement.
Colleges don’t agree on what cut scores indicate college readiness, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. Community colleges typically require a higher score than four-year colleges and universities.
Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Most will not go on to complete a credential. Some reformers think remedial courses — not poor preparation — are the problem.
Many students are placed unnecessarily in remedial courses, according to several Community College Research Center studies.
For example, among two large samples of community college students who were deemed to have remedial needs based on standardized placement tests, up to a third could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better. (Companies that produce the tests have defended them in response to the studies and resulting criticism.)
The research also found that high school GPAs are better predictors of student success than placement tests.
However, grades may not say much about the many community college students who’ve been out of school for years. At the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, the median age is 28. Instead of evaluating high school transcripts, CCBC provides pre-test workshops and practice exams to help new students do well on the placement tests.
The Coast Guard is training new shipyard workers in partnership with Community College of Baltimore County reports the Baltimore Sun. Curtis Bay apprentices receive job training and earn college credits. Many go on to complete an associate’s degree.
The apprenticeship experience is “dirty and exhausting and fun,” said Melody Bloch, 26, a graduate and marine machinist from Pasadena. And it pays — $36,000 a year during the four-year program and a salary of about $49,000 upon graduation.
The Coast Guard modeled the program after one created by the Navy and General Dynamics Corp. in Norfolk, Va., combining college-level courses with on-the-job training.
“I was getting out of the Coast Guard and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I literally stepped off the cutter and into the first class,” said Jason Deyo, 31, a shipyard safety specialist who enlisted right out of Loch Raven High School. “What a great opportunity.”
Deyo completed his two-year degree, got a bachelor’s in occupational safety and is working now on a master’s in organizational leadership from Columbia Southern University.
As older workers approach retirement, Curtis Bay need workers with welding, sheet metal, machinery, pipefitting, electrical and painting skills.
Applicants must have a high school diploma or an equivalent and take college placement tests. Often 100 people will apply for every position. Apprentices must earn a grade of 70 or better in community college courses. They earn 39 credits in four years, leaving them only about two semesters’ short of an associate degree.
Two-thirds of new community college students aren’t ready for college-level classes, said Frank Chong, deputy assistant secretary for community colleges at the U.S. Department of Education, in a panel discussion organized by American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF).
“The longer the pipeline, the more chances for leakage,” said Peter Adams, director of accelerated learning at the CCBC, whose runs a developmental English program that is gaining attention in Maryland and across the country.
CCBC’s Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) allows students to enroll in freshman English while taking upper-level developmental English in small-group classes.
ALP students have the same instructors for both courses, so they feel more comfortable asking questions and the instructors can more closely monitor students’ progress.
Prior to ALP, 59 percent of students in the developmental English class passed the course, and only 37 percent moved on to English 101. Since ALP started, 81 percent pass the developmental class, and, because of simultaneous enrollment, there is no attrition rate between developmental English and English 101.
CCD’s FastStart program lets students complete two to four semesters of developmental courses in one semester. It’s geared to working adults with career goals.
Prior to FastStart, 48 percent of students in the highest remedial math course completed the remedial sequence. Since FastStart, 85 percent have completed the sequence.
Adams called for a national institute to help instructors develop effective techniques for teaching remedial courses.
An Army veteran, Charles Whittington got an A for an essay on the thrill of fighting and killing in Iraq. Then he was suspended by Community College of Baltimore County, reports the Baltimore Sun. College officials fear Whittington is a threat to his classmates.
Combat is addictive, Whittington wrote. Killing “is something that I do not just want but something I really need so I can feel like myself.” His instructor urged him to publish the paper; it appeared in the campus newspaper. Two weeks later, he was barred from campus until cleared by a psychologist.
“We all believe in freedom of speech, but we have to really be cautious in this post- Virginia Tech world,” says college spokesman Hope Davis, referring to the 2007 massacre of 32 people by a student gunman.
But Whittington, 24, says that he has his violent impulses under control with the help of counseling and medication and that the college is unfairly keeping him from moving forward with his life.
Whittington was unconscious for five days after a roadside explosion. In addition to back, neck and arm injuries, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic- stress disorder and medically discharged in 2008.
He started classes at the community college this spring, earning a perfect 4.0 average in his first semester.
Whittington seems baffled at the reaction to his work and the comparisons to Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. “That guy wasn’t a veteran or a soldier, and he was mad at the school,” he says. “What I’m writing about has nothing to do with the school. Really, it’s through writing that I’ve been able to deal with things.”
Not all veterans on campus support Whittington. Mike Brittingham, a former Marine who is studying air traffic service, contacted campus safety officers and the president’s office after reading the essay. “Being in the military is certainly not about going out and being addicted to killing people,” he told the Sun.
Whittington, a full-time student who is considering a teaching career, has scheduled an evaluation with his Veterans Affairs psychologist, who he believes will confirm that he’s not a threat.
Accelerated Learning Program students who place into the highest level of remedial writing are allowed to enroll directly in English 101, a college-level course, if they also take a companion ALP course, which is limited to eight students and taught by the same instructor.
In the sample used in this study, 82% of ALP students passed ENGL 101 within one year, compared with 69% of non-ALP ENGL 052 students. More than a third (34%) of ALP students passed ENGL 102, compared with only 12% of the non-ALP ENGL 052 students.
Compared to traditional remediation, ALP was significantly more cost-effective in helping students pass English requirements for an associate degree. Although selection bias may have affected the results, CCBC is expanding the program. Next year, a majority of students referred to the highest level developmental English will be enrolled in ALP and English 101.
Less than half of students complete the remedial sequence to which they’re referred, another CCRC study found. Failure to enroll is a more significant factor than failure to pass courses.