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?

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.”

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.”

Ana Chávez, 21, says a Spanish-English language barrier further isolates struggling high school students.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

Upon entering SFCC, Ana Chávez, 21, had spent time at all three of Santa Fe’s public high schools—and graduated—but she still wasn’t ready for college-level coursework.

“The whole Santa Fe Public Schools system didn’t work for me,” Chávez tells SFR. Chávez, who immigrated to the US from El Salvador when she was nine years old, speaks perfect English now—but in high school, she says, still faced a language barrier.

When Chávez attended Santa Fe High, there were relatively few bilingual teachers, she says. (Stephens estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of his staff speaks both Spanish and English fluently; at Capital, Romero says, the fraction is closer to one-third.)

Instead, Chávez connected with other Spanish-speaking students.

“We’d never go to class because the teachers didn’t want to take the time to explain [assignments] to us,” Chávez says. “I don’t know how I managed to pass because I never did anything.”

But when her friends started dropping out and getting into trouble, Chávez says, she made up her mind to do the opposite—and she switched to Capital High.

“I lasted, like, a semester,” Chávez confesses. Finally, at SER/Career Academy, she found her niche, cramming more than 23 credits into a single year before she graduated. But it still wasn’t enough and, after taking SFCC’s placement test, Chávez spent her first two semesters of community college in developmental math and English courses.

“I nailed English at [SER/Career] Academy,” Chávez says, but there was still plenty she didn’t know. “Some of this stuff, I had never gone over with them,” she admits.

Once at SFCC, Chávez learned the skills she needed to earn an associate’s degree. She is now in her first semester at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communications.

Chávez credits her own motivation, but also her family’s unflagging support.

“The things my mother would tell me—‘Get your butt up and go to school; remember that school’s going to help you’—I knew it was from her heart,” Chávez tells SFR. “You have to have somebody inspirational in your life, somebody to push you and say, ‘You have to keep going.’”

Ron Liss, SFCC’s vice president for academic and student affairs, says it’s up to the community college to bridge the gap for academically underprepared students—even if the problems start in elementary school.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

Ron Liss, SFCC’s vice president for academic and student affairs, says it’s tempting to blame the academic achievement gap on high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools. But it’s also the result of systemic changes in American education, he says—changes that have left many students stranded in the middle.

“Why aren’t they prepared? We never designed them to be prepared,” Liss, who has also conducted academic research on education systems, tells SFR. “When colleges were created and high schools were created, there was never an intent to link the two.”

Whereas a high school diploma was once enough to land a reasonably high-paying job, Liss says, now an associate’s degree is the bottom-line prerequisite for most occupations.

“So all of a sudden, you needed to make that leap—but we didn’t make the system, at the same time, prepare the easy transition,” Liss says.

Changing an entire education system takes years, he says—so it’s often up to community colleges to bridge the achievement chasm.

“That’s where we’ve developed these developmental programs that say, ‘We can fill in that gap,’” Liss explains. “We’re going to try and get there.”

In fall 2009, 64 percent of incoming SFCC students—and 69 percent of Hispanic students—were enrolled in at least one developmental course.

Though that speaks to the college’s efforts to bring unprepared students up to speed, Liss says, the developmental courses also lead to unintended consequences.

“The students that spend any significant amount of time in developmental classes prior to being in college [courses] have very little chance of ever graduating,” Liss tells SFR. “If they start in our lowest-level courses, I can almost guarantee you that they will not graduate. Their financial aid runs out; other things get in the way; they have more of a chance of getting sidetracked.”

In part, he says, that’s because developmental courses often have nothing to do to with the real reason most students decide to go to college.

“We put them in things that they don’t care about,” Liss explains. “If I want to learn about biofuels, but I have to go through two years of developmental [coursework] before I take my first biofuels course, my chance of ever being motivated to get there is taken away.”

It’s also discouraging, he says, to spend entire semesters in developmental classes that cost the same amount of money as other classes but don’t count toward a degree or certificate.

Around 2005, Liss says, SFCC administrators began to notice that the developmental courses sometimes had a counterproductive effect on retention and student success—and they started brainstorming.

They realized, Liss says, “that we really need to do more than just these small, little pieces. We need a whole experience that the student would go through during their first year—what we call a First Year Experience.”

Over the course of 2011, Liss’ brainchild will become a reality. Drangmeister is in the process of hiring six staff members to run the program, including a director, a curriculum specialist, two advisers, an administrative assistant and a data analyst.

Drangmeister hopes to “have all the pieces in place” by April 18, the beginning of pre-registration for fall and summer courses at SFCC, so that a full-fledged First Year Experience will be in place for students who start their studies this fall.

SFCC assistant professor Daniel Kilpatric says a course that shortens the length of time students spend in basic math classes will help keep students engaged.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

For some faculty members at SFCC, the problems inherent in the developmental coursework system were already apparent—and they’ve already devised ways to correct them.

Computer and Information Technologies Chairwoman Phyllis Baca—whose “overarching goal,” she says, is to double the number of engineers in New Mexico with an emphasis on under-represented minorities in the field—has spent the last four years creating what she calls “multiple entries and exits” in SFCC’s engineering program.

The goal, she says, is to widen career fields—so that instead of attending school for years to receive a bachelor’s or master’s degree in engineering, a student can earn a certificate in computer-aided drafting or an associate’s degree in applied science.

“Life does happen,” Baca explains. “Even that one kid who’s so focused on doing the bachelor’s [degree], life might happen to him, and then suddenly they need a certificate; they just need to get out and start making money.”

Baca says widening students’ options also benefits the school.

“It’s just such a ripple effect because the kids strive for that higher goal—engineering—but they have so many outlets and inlets that we’re able to start filling our other programs,” Baca says. By providing achievable goals, she says, she’s seen calculus and computer courses fill up in unprecedented numbers.

“I’m in total, total shock,” Baca says. “The first year I came, there was one student in one engineering class, and they were thinking of closing the program.”

This year, she says, between 12 and 16 students will graduate with associate’s degrees in engineering—which is a boon not just to them, she notes, but also to fomenting a high-tech sector in New Mexico.

Baca rattles off a list of what she’s actually doing to implement that change—paid summer field studies, weekend field trips, conferences. But perhaps most importantly, Baca has developed a first-year course without prerequisites, so students have a chance to try their hand at engineering from the outset.

Kilpatric, too, has already worked to implement aspects of SFCC’s planned First Year Experience—in the form of a course that compresses his general math and pre-algebra classes into a single semester. The product, he says, will allow students to knock out their developmental math requirements in a single semester, rather than having to finish one course before they start another.

Kilpatric sees that as part of his job. “Until we get a program developed,” he says, “we kind of are the first year experience.”

Still, he says, piecemeal faculty efforts are not enough.

“We try to do a lot of things to be supportive,” Kilpatric says, “but without an overreaching program that kind of connects between the classes, it’s hard to be that effective in terms of really creating that experience for the students where they feel part of the community and they feel that they know what to expect and what’s going to be expected of them.”

After a 10-year break from school, Jason Deleau re-entered academia at SFCC—and passed with flying colors thanks to a federal student support program.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

SFCC faculty and administrator already have seen the results of such a compre-hensive program—at least for a small group of students.

TRIO, a US Department of Education grant program, funds programs specifically targeted toward supporting low-income and first-generation students.

Both groups are heavily represented at SFCC—and both tend to have lower retention and academic success rates.

In fall 2009, 58 percent of the students entering SFCC identified as first-generation college students—far higher than the national average of 39 percent. A whopping 85 percent, in 2008-09, were eligible for some type of financial aid.

“The strongest correlation to students’ succeeding and getting a degree is socioeconomic status,” Liss says. First-generation students also face significant challenges, he says, because “a first-generation [student’s] family has not necessarily valued education as a No. 1 priority.”

In fiscal year 2010, SFCC received $238,496 in TRIO grant awards to provide student support services—academic skill development, assistance with developmental coursework and motivational help—to 160 low-income, first-generation students.

This is a small portion of the students who need such services, but for those who received them, the program worked.

Jason Deleau grew up in Colorado and, after graduating from high school in 1999, joined the Army and worked odd jobs.

“I’ve done a little bit of everything; my résumé is like five pages long,” Deleau laughs.

But after moving to New Mexico to care for a family member, Deleau tired of his transient lifestyle.

“When you go to a new city and you don’t know anybody, you’re forced to pick up jobs at Labor Ready or anywhere you can until you get acquainted,” Deleau explains. “I was just tired of that. I was tired of searching, searching, searching.”

So Deleau registered to enroll at SFCC in fall 2009. Before classes started, he received a letter informing him that he was eligible to apply for TRIO.

TRIO, Deleau says, played a significant role in his college experience. After 10 years away from the academic world, he often needed help navigating the system; TRIO made it easy to ask.

“They just took me under their wing,” Deleau says. In addition to expanding his academic experience through field trips, group activities and awards dinners, “they allowed me express concerns or ask questions without being judgmental,” Deleau says. “When I had to write scholarship essays, they would proofread them and help me build them and just give me confidence.”

As a result, Deleau blossomed. He joined student government—he’s currently the treasurer—and, within two years of enrolling, is on the verge of completing his associate’s degree. He has excelled academically; this year, he became one of 38 students at community colleges around the state who qualified for two years of free tuition at an in-state college of his choice. He has already enrolled at UNM, and he’ll start working toward a bachelor’s degree in the fall.

In contrast to most community college students, TRIO students traditionally exhibit higher retention and graduation rates. A US Department of Education study on TRIO’s student support services program—the same program in effect at SFCC—found statistically significant increases in both retention and degree attainment.

Deleau says expanding the types of services he enjoyed in TRIO would significantly alter many students’ experiences at SFCC.

“I see a lot of people get angry and eventually drop out because they can’t find certain classes, or they can’t get help with this or that,” Deleau says.

In Deleau’s case, though, the extra attention helped him find his calling. When he finishes his degree, he wants to become a teacher.  SFR

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