This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
From her seat in her English class at Community College of Philadelphia, Doryann Burry, 18, could look out the window and see her dream, shimmering in the sunlight just a few blocks away.
“I’ve always wanted to work at Comcast,” she said. “I heard they’re a great employer and it looks so beautiful.”
But when Burry got to college, her dream seemed distant, well beyond the few city blocks that separate Comcast’s shining towers from the campus on Spring Garden Street.
That’s because Burry, who studied AP English at her high school, Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet High School, couldn’t pass CCP’s placement test – not in English, not in math.
“I spent a lot of time crying about it,” she said. “Is this really where I’m at? In high school, I passed Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry with flying colors. I was in AP English and then I found myself here learning all these things all over again. And the math. That was basic math. I shouldn’t have been in that class. That was a disappointment being in that class.
“It hit my self-esteem really hard.”
Luckily for Burry, a business major, her determination outweighed her discouragement and she persisted through remedial classes and is now on track. “I keep my eye on Comcast,” she said.
Many students don’t feel that way and give up. “They come to college for a program that will lead to an associate degree. By putting them into developmental [remedial] courses, we are taking away that hope. We are wasting a semester of their time and their finances–but most importantly, time and hope,” said Samuel Hirsch, vice president for academic and student success.
Even some college grads lack literacy skills
Hirsch said that community colleges around the nation are looking at ways to circumvent the discouragement that Burry experienced and move students to graduation and ultimately to degrees at four-year partner colleges and universities, such as Temple and Drexel.
How community colleges build skills matters. Research by Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy shows that one in five college graduates lack literacy skills, despite their degrees. And it’s worse for math, with one in three lacking numeracy skills. The consequences play out in reduced earnings.
At Community College, which accepts a wide array of applicants, students have a chance to build skills missed in high school. If they do and advance to a four-year-degree with appropriate skills, they can tap into the college-earnings potential. If they leave without a degree, they are only marginally better off than a high school graduate, their research shows.
About 30 percent of students entering Community College need to build literacy skills through developmental courses, Hirsch said. About half need mathematics help.
Hirsch said that in 2014, 55 percent of students required remedial literacy classes. He said the college is looking at other factors–including high school grade point averages–to decide whether to require remedial course.
Burry thinks that would be a good idea. For her, sitting for the three-hour placement exams were too taxing. After a while, she started answering randomly, just so she could get out of the room.
The literacy is particularly important, because students who can’t test into freshman English also can’t take reading dependent courses such as psychology or history.
Speeding up remediation
Hirsch said the college is testing several programs, all with the goal of getting students into for-credit classes as quickly as possible. Research shows, he said, that students tend to stay in college if they can quickly accumulate credits.
One strategy is to schedule students for both freshman Englishand remedial English during thesame semester which also allows students to enroll in classes such as psychology.
That method worked for Camille Porter, 20, a graduate of Central High School, who was shocked to learn that she had to take a developmental English class. Her developmental class was paired with CCP’s freshman English class. The same professor taught it, in the same classroom, immediately after English 101.
Hirsch said it appears that the students who tested into freshman English also benefit. He said CCP reduces the English 101 class size when developmental students are on the roster, allowing for more individual attention from teachers.
“I only had to take the one class,” Porter said. She’s now carrying the maximum load, so she can transfer to Temple University needing as few courses as possible to graduate with a major in communications.
On the mathematics side, he said, it’s more complicated. Because CCP’s median age is 25, many students have been away from mathematics classes for a long time.
For many of them, a single refresher course to remind them of what they once knew well might suffice. More difficult are those, who, for whatever reason, didn’t catch on to mathematics in the first place.
Hirsch said that CCP used to require a semester of basic mathematics and another semester of basic Algebra but found that students like Burry were getting frustrated. Now the two disciplines are combined into one semester – two seven-week intense sessions designed to reacquaint students with mathematics.
CCP is also re-designing the equivalent of its Math 101 classes to align them more closely with student disciplines. For example, he said, an accounting major would be learning basic mathematics through a statistics course, while mathematics for an architecture major might incorporate basic mathematics into geometry.