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Plugging a knowledge gap

Don McIver, a Central New Mexico Community College teacher, describes a basic essay structure during a remedial English class at the University of New Mexico. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
Don McIver, a Central New Mexico Community College teacher, describes a basic essay structure during a remedial English class at the University of New Mexico. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

UNM pushing students to be better prepared for college

Cheyanne Palacios is only 18, but the University of New Mexico freshman already knows she wants to be a neo-natal intensive care nurse.

“I enjoy helping others, and I love babies, so they just go together,” the Valley High School graduate said after her English 100 class at UNM. The non-credit remedial course is intended to sharpen writing skills for starting freshmen.

But the odds are that only five or six of the 18 students in Palacios’ English 100 class will reach the commencement podium at the Pit.

A decade of experience shows that only 29 percent – fewer than a third – of UNM freshmen who are required to take one or more remedial courses graduate within six years, according to a new UNM study.

Among students who need three remedial courses, the six-year graduation rate falls to 21 percent, or about one in five.

map templateThe report also shows that New Mexico high schools vary widely in the percentage of graduates who enroll in remedial classes.

About a third – 32 percent – of graduates from New Mexico public high schools required at least one remedial class from 2002 to 2011, the report found.

UNM leaders want to lessen dependence on remedial education by finding ways to better prepare students before they start college.

The university asked about 50 students who enrolled as freshmen this fall to take “early start” classes this summer to help them prepare for college-level work.

Next year, UNM plans to make the summer classes mandatory for students who fail to attain a minimum score on college entrance exams.

But remedial education will remain a part of UNM’s academic toolbox for the indefinite future as educators search for better ways of preparing students for college.

“For the time being, remedial classes are still in the plan, because we’re not ready to totally move away from that,” said Terry Babbitt, associate vice president for enrollment management.

In recent years, about 30 percent of UNM’s starting freshmen have been required to take remedial classes, which are taught by Central New Mexico Community College professors on the UNM campus.

“What we’re doing is all about confidence building,” said Nora Nixon, CNM’s site coordinator for remedial courses at UNM.

A remedial English teacher, Nixon said she asks students to list schools they have attended throughout their lives.

“I might see 11 or 12 schools on there,” she said. The long lists speak to frequent disruptions in their educational progress. “It’s not uncommon to see several high schools.”

Reasons for school changes may include divorce, custody battles, a parent’s incarceration or moves required for military or immigrant families. Remedial programs remain useful for students from splintered backgrounds, she said.

“We tell them it’s a brand new slate at the university,” Nixon said. Teachers introduce remedial students to resources offered at UNM, such as tutoring, financial aid and job opportunities, internships and student-exchange programs.

“If they can land that scholarship and apply for these opportunities, that can make all the difference in keeping them,” she said.

On a mission

University of New Mexico freshmen, from left, Daniel Conkle, Adrianna Montoya, Victor Rodriguez and Zack Gonzales study an essay in a remedial English class. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

University of New Mexico freshmen, from left, Daniel Conkle, Adrianna Montoya, Victor Rodriguez and Zack Gonzales study an essay in a remedial English class. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM is on a mission to improve its graduation rate, and ensuring that its freshmen are prepared for college work is a critical component of that.

Higher graduation rates benefit students and New Mexico’s economy, said Provost Chaouki Abdallah.

“People who graduate, they start producing,” he said. Graduates put their degrees to work building value and paying taxes. “They start paying taxes, working, doing stuff, and that’s important.”

Higher graduation rates also boost UNM’s standing among universities and enhance the value of a UNM degree, he said.

The higher our graduation rate, the better our reputation,” he said.

UNM appears to be getting a return on its efforts to boost graduation rates. Those measures include improved student advising and a graduation program that offers inducements to lapsed students to bring them back to the university.

In the past three years, graduation rates at UNM have climbed to the highest level since the university began tracking the measure in 1983. UNM’s six-year graduation rate is at least 47.3 percent for 2013 and could climb slightly after summer graduations are included, officials said.

That rate is up from 45.8 percent in 2012 after hovering around 44 percent for much of the last decade, UNM records show.

More recent efforts to boost retention and graduation include a year-old coaching program that pairs freshmen with a faculty or staff member and the early start summer classes initiated this year.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Abdallah.

Don McIver, center, works with UNM freshmen Danielle Chee, left, and Destiny Gonzales during an English 101 class at the University of New Mexico on August 23, 2013. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Don McIver, center, works with UNM freshmen Danielle Chee, left, and Destiny Gonzales during an English 101 class at the University of New Mexico on August 23, 2013. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Turning the ship

Ultimately, students need better preparation at the K-12 level, particularly in the state’s public high schools, which supply the lion’s share of UNM students.

Eddie Soto, APS assistant superintendent of secondary education, said the district uses UNM’s remediation rates to target programs intended to help students make the transition to college.

An example is AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, an elective class offered to APS high school students who are likely candidates for college remediation classes, Soto said.

The class allows students to make up credits outside the school day and provides tutoring, help finding scholarships and other college-success strategies.

APS is also paying closer attention to the transition from middle school to high school by offering small classes to high school freshmen who fail to perform at grade level in reading and math, Soto said.

The report calls for better communication between UNM and the state’s high schools. For example, it recommends that UNM prepare “feedback reports” informing high schools about the success of their graduates in college.

A 2009 state law required colleges to create annual freshmen performance reports for high schools, but only if high schools ask for the information.

The report calls for routine reporting to high schools about their graduates’ college performance.

“Our goal will be to try to format information helpful to schools and distribute that to schools, even if they don’t request it,” Babbitt said.

Glenn Walters, deputy secretary of higher education, said he is unaware of any requests for freshmen performance data by any schools or districts in the state. UNM has provided data about freshmen to APS and Rio Rancho school districts, he said.

Peter Winograd, director of the UNM Center for Education Policy Research and a co-author of the report, said ongoing changes in high school graduation requirements have already improved college readiness for New Mexico students.

Freshmen entering UNM this fall mark the first class of high school graduates who were required to study four years of math under the new standards, he said.

Other changes that took effect this year include a requirement that all students take at least one honors, advanced placement or dual-credit course that gives them credit for both high school and college.

“I’m very proud of New Mexico for turning the ship a little bit,” he said.

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