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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

Capital High School Principal Melanie Romero is working on early-intervention attendance and career programs to help her students stay engaged.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

General math, pre-algebra, basic reading—for many of the students placed in developmental courses at SFCC, feeling invested is as unfamiliar as it is elusive.

According to Cheryl Drangmeister, SFCC’s associate vice president for enrollment management, a significant chunk of SFCC students come from local public schools.

In fall 2010, for instance, 21 percent of SFCC’s total enrollment had attended one of Santa Fe’s two largest public high schools, Santa Fe or Capital High.

To make sense of student attrition, then, it’s essential to consider what happens in local high schools before students graduate.

When SFR presented Santa Fe High School Principal Robert Stephens with the key statistic—that 91 percent of Santa Fe high school graduates are unprepared even for community college—he was incredulous.

“I’d like to see where that number comes from,” Stephens says.

It comes from SFCC’s application for a Title V federal grant—funding available only to universities whose student populations are at least 25 percent Hispanic (SFCC’s is 36 percent)—for the first-year experience.

The grant language calls the percentage of academically unprepared students “astounding”—but at least by the measure of national test scores, low achievement among Santa Fe students is widespread. Only 60 percent of public high school students graduate at all. Of those who do, fewer than half of the students at Santa Fe and Capital High exhibited proficiency in math or reading on the Adequate Yearly Progress tests administered in 2010 under the national No Child Left Behind Act.

But Stephens says he’s more worried about attendance—itself both a cause and a symptom of students’ lack of academic preparedness.

“I’m convinced that if a student were to arrive at every class they were assigned to, day in and day out, they would pass—and not only pass, but pass with a good grade,” he says.

In one course, attendance is particularly crucial, he says.

“Algebra I is the indicator,” Stephens explains. “If they’re not successful there, they’re the most at risk for dropout.”

But Diane Otero-Bell, who teaches Algebra I at Santa Fe High, says the problem of preparedness extends beyond a student’s ability to master algebra.

“I feel as though the children don’t understand the fundamentals, don’t even know their multiplication tables,” Otero-Bell says.

Like Stephens, Capital High School Principal Melanie Romero recognizes the dual challenge of low academic achievement and high dropout rates—and has implemented intervention programs for students who log a certain number of absences, as well as career-oriented “academies” to help students relate their coursework to bigger goals.

The academies, Romero says, will put a focus on collaborative teaching around a curriculum designed to reinforce a given career field or interest area, such as science and technology or the arts.

“We have a big job, filling the gap” in student proficiency, Romero says. “I’m dealing with 1,100 teenagers, trying to prepare them for college or a career.”

Still, she says, collaborative teaching—increasingly with an eye to what students will need to succeed in SFCC’s English 101 course—is essential, particularly in the transition between freshman and sophomore years.

At that point, Romero says, “If I don’t figure out how to retain them, I’m going to lose them.”
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