Helping Freshmen Off to a Better ‘CUNY Start’

Anselm Lalla left now a full time student at Kingsborough Community College, chats with Ellen Baxt, Program Coordinator and Kevin Winkler ,continuing education Instructor

Anselm Lalla was discouraged when he tried to go to college some 20 years after finishing high school in Trinidad. “When I failed the CUNY competence tests, they told me it would take at least three semesters to go through remedial classes,” said Lalla, 36.

Everything changed with the University’s new, effective and low-cost immersion program, which prepares first-time freshmen for college-level work before they matriculate. “It’s the best thing that ever happened. The instructors were amazing,” he said, adding that staff assisted “with any problem, not only schoolwork.”

Coming to colleges in fall 2011 in all five boroughs, the program, now called CUNY Start, is one of three novel approaches to address the flood of underprepared freshmen; all are rooted in a curriculum piloted in 2009-2010 after several years of experimentation by the Office of Academic Affairs.

The other two are innovative hybrid courses at the forthcoming new community college and intervention in high school classrooms.

“Students trust that we’ll get them ready for college-level work, but traditional remedial classes don’t work for everyone,” said Alexandra W. Logue, executive vice chancellor and University provost. “Students become frustrated if they have to repeat remedial classes, or take remedial classes over several semesters, and they may then drop out. They also waste financial aid on classes that don’t move them toward a degree. So we’ve been working on alternatives.”

These innovations come amid national concern about mediocre preparation for college, even as international competition demands ever-more capable college graduates. President Obama has spotlighted the critical role that community colleges need to play in assuring America’s economic future.

In New York, the state Education Department says that less than half of high school graduates are ready for college or high-paying careers; in New York City, only 23 percent of high school graduates are ready, despite a 64 percent graduation rate, according to a Feb. 7 New York Times account.

Statewide, just 41 percent of high school graduates notched at least a 75 on the English Regents or an 80 on a math Regents in 2009 — scores that predict at least a college-level C in the same subject. Students scoring below these values may need remediation. Two-thirds of New York City students attending SUNY community colleges need remedial help.

The pilot for CUNY Start yielded promising results. Of 113 LaGuardia and Kingsborough Community College students who completed it, 71 percent were exempted from all further remediation. More specifically, 92 percent passed math 2 (algebra), 82 percent passed math 1 (arithmetic), 80 percent passed reading and 79 percent passed writing. Statewide and national pass rates are significantly lower.

In fall 2000, 85 percent of CUNY first-time community college freshmen — some 9,400 students – needed at least one remedial class. In fall 2010, following several years of significant enrollment growth at CUNY, 79 percent, or 13,585 students, needed at least one remedial class. One-quarter needed remediation in all three areas (reading, writing and math) last fall. And since 2005, the number receiving low scores on all three skills tests more than doubled, from 447 to 959. Such students accounted for 5.5 percent of community college freshmen last fall.

Students who need remediation generally enroll in an associate degree program, taking and paying for noncredit remedial classes along with credit-bearing ones. But some lack the classroom skills needed to flourish in academic courses. CUNY Start is designed to solve those problems. It charges a nominal $75 for a comprehensive full-time or part-time immersion program. Before students put their dollars on the line with an academic course, CUNY Start aims to bring them up to speed in reading, writing and math, along with the skills and attitudes needed to succeed.

Lalla dispatched his remedial work during Kingsborough’s initial 12-week segment. In the subsequent six-week segment, he and 18 other pilot participants took a credit-bearing introductory psychology class. Others in the pilot continued immersion in remedial courses.

“I loved the students,” said psychology assistant professor Lisa K. Paler. “They were motivated and engaged. When one test did not go well, we went over multiple-choice and short-answer questions, and I asked how could I present material in a way that would be easier to comprehend. They said, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t study well.’ I was blown away.”

Said Lalla: “If you do not succeed in her class, it’s you, not her.” With an A-minus in Paler’s class, this husband and father of a 22-month-old son is now a full-time student at Kingsborough. Hoping for a career in nursing, he also works more than 40 hours a week as a home health aide.

University math staff developer Steve Hinds traced the pilot’s success to far more time per semester than the typical 45 to 60 hours, more in-depth coverage of fewer topics and avoidance of teacher-centered presentations. “Our instructors use an enormous number of questions, not statements, to provoke conversations among students.” The students, he said, “make connections, generalize and figure out the rules.”

Another highly promising innovation to prepare students for college work is playing out in the high schools. Called “At Home in College,” this initiative aims at making high school students feel comfortable with higher education. Now in its third year, the program is supported by a $1.3 million Robin Hood Foundation grant.

Among the results: Seventy-three percent of participants in 2009 and 2010 enrolled in higher education, versus 58 percent of all the city’s Department of Education graduates; enrollment rates for African-Americans (74 percent) and Latinos (71 percent) exceeded national averages (56 percent and 64 percent, respectively); participants scored 11 to 20 percentage points higher on CUNY placement tests than their peers in associate degree programs in 2009, and 70.9 percent of the 2009 students were still enrolled full time in associate degree programs into a third semester — 7.1 percentage points higher than the comparable CUNY-wide retention rate.

Currently serving 1,000 students in ​city high schools, At Home in College is to expand to more than 2,000 in 75 high schools next year and to 5,000 the year after. The need is great, according to Eric Hofmann, University director for collaborative programs. “Each year, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 seniors who are on track to graduate, but need help and academic support . . . to become college-ready.”

CUNY’s New Community College, to open in fall 2012, will infuse remedial work in required credit-bearing, first-year courses that, if not quite immersion, give the students more time on task than the usual classes.

“There will be a common curriculum, but differentiated instruction, since students come with different degrees of preparedness,” said associate math professor Bill Rosenthal. Every student will take statistics, which will dovetail with a City Seminar running 72 hours of classroom time over two semesters. The seminar will integrate reading, writing, critical thinking and quantitative analysis as it explores immigration; homelessness and housing; and consumption, waste and recycling.