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The Freshman

Santa Fe Community College has a plan for reversing first-year student dropout rates—but can a local institution overcome a national epidemic?

April 6, 2011, 1:00 am
After three semesters at Santa Fe Community College, Pedro Ibarra, a clean-cut 21-year-old, dropped out and went to work at a car dealership.

“I just was tired of school,” Ibarra says, shrugging. “I wanted to explore and see if I could make it on my own and get money.”

Ibarra was born in Santa Fe, but his parents are from Zacatecas, Mexico, and he is the first in his family to attend college. Even though Ibarra graduated from Monte del Sol Charter School, a public charter high school at which the graduation rate and student test scores consistently exceed district averages, he spent his first year of community college taking basic math and English classes.

In that regard, Ibarra belongs among the whopping 91 percent of local high school graduates who, upon entering SFCC in 2009, were assessed to have “weak basic academic skills” and assigned to remedial—“developmental,” in SFCC’s parlance—courses before even
beginning to work toward degrees.

Ibarra says the required remedial classes made it difficult to see the point of attending school rather than working at a job with a tangible payoff.

“I think it’s just about feeling more independent and older,” Ibarra says. “I wanted my own things; I wanted to get a taste of work.”

He did. After Ibarra dropped out, he moved up from washing cars to working as a technician at Chalmers Capitol Ford Lincoln Mercury.

“I was working, and I was making money,” Ibarra says. “I don’t have any children and I’m not married, so I had the money to spend on whatever I wanted to.”

It was exactly the life he’d thought he wanted—but Ibarra couldn’t shake the feeling that he should have been pursuing a more meaningful career.

“I had a loss in my family, and I thought of, ‘When we leave, what do we leave behind?’” Ibarra says. “And I thought I could leave much more behind than just what I was doing. I saw potential in me.”

So Ibarra re-enrolled this spring and, determined to excel in school, quit his job at Chalmers. Even though he’s had to retake classes, he is bringing new determination to his studies.

 “I’ve been just focusing and working really hard on being in class and paying attention,” he says. “It’s been my best year in school by far, in my whole life, because I have communication with my teachers and I’m really trying.” He concludes: “I don’t have much money, but that’s the sacrifice.”

Ibarra also credits Robert Salazar, a faculty member at SFCC’s School of Business and Applied Technologies, with inspiring his new focus.

When Salazar learned he was interested in pursuing a degree in architecture, Ibarra says, Salazar immediately set him up with hands-on training.

“He’s like, ‘I want you to see the architectural drafting side rather than just sitting there with a pencil and paper’—so I could get the whole aspect of it and see if that’s what I wanted to do,” Ibarra says.

Ibarra has become a unique success story the community college hopes to replicate.

Pedro Ibarra, 21, dropped out of Santa Fe Community College to earn money—but then realized life without a degree wasn’t as easy as he imagined it would be.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

Based on data SFCC reports to the US Department of Education, of the approximately 6,600 students who enrolled at SFCC in fall 2010, only half are expected to return for a second year. Even fewer will successfully earn a degree—a discouraging trend at the only public community college serving Santa Fe.

Faculty and administrators at SFCC cite the widespread lack of preparation for college-level coursework as a key driver in student attrition.

“Students come in, and their skills are at such a low level that they’re looking at two, 2 1/2 years of work to get to college level, and then two more years to get an associate’s degree,” assistant professor Daniel Kilpatric, who teaches developmental math to primarily first-year students, tells SFR. “And that’s even being optimistic—that’s assuming everything goes smoothly and they’re there full-time.”

SFCC’s attrition rates are enough of a problem to warrant national assistance. Last fall, SFCC won a five-year, $3.19 million federal grant to revamp the way it educates and retains first-year students—but only recently has the college begun to nail down specific initiatives, such as streamlining developmental courses and increasing academic advising and student support.

By this fall, administrators hope, students entering the community college will no longer wander unassisted through the maze of remedial coursework that often leads students like Ibarra to drop out.

“That’s something a first-year experience could really help with: You’ve got to care about what you’re learning,” Kilpatric says. “Even if it’s not the most exciting thing in the world, you’ve got to be invested.”
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