college readiness

Community Colleges Tackle College Readiness

By Ellen Ullman

By forming an alliance with local school districts, McHenry County College greatly reduced the need for developmental math.

Five years ago, when Vicky Smith became president of McHenry County College (MCC), in Illinois, she held a meeting. In the room were MCC administrators, math and English instructors, the regional county K–12 superintendent and several district superintendents and curriculum directors. The college’s administration told the group that 57 percent of recent high school graduates had tested into remedial math. As the group discussed ways to improve those results, the College and Career Readiness Alliance was born.

The alliance, which meets three times a semester, has two overarching goals: Ensure that college students don’t need to repeat classes they already took; and help students to obtain a certificate or degree that leads to a job that pays well.

“If you start from the perspective that we’re all in this together and we need to work in partnership, we can increase the number of certificates and degrees our students earn,” Smith says. “To do that, we have to remove as many barriers as possible.”

Decreasing the need for remedial math

“Math was our starting point,” says Tony Capalbo, the associate dean of college and coordinator of the alliance. Because many high school students don’t take math in their senior year (Illinois requires only three years of math), they tend to score poorly on the college-placement exam. To combat this, the alliance worked with high schools to give the placement exam to juniors in November, before they plan their schedules for senior year.

MCC made its developmental course curriculum available as well. If high school seniors take the course, earn at least a C and go to MCC, they automatically get placed in a credit-bearing math course. “Our instructors worked through the syllabus with the high school teachers to make sure they were able to teach the course,” Capalbo says.

In the first year, two out of the 14 alliance high schools piloted the course with 71 students. Several other schools featured MCC’s syllabus in their own remedial-style class. In the second year, six high schools collectively enrolled 222 students. Last year, more than 300 students took the course.

Already, the results are phenomenal, with a 31 percent decrease in the number of recent high school graduates taking development math at MCC.

Other successful college readiness initiatives

Improving developmental math is only one of the alliance’s 15 initiatives. Kids in College, a summer school for children in grades 1 through 9, had nearly 850 children attend its STEM classes this year, and the girls-only classes filled up immediately.

The counselors in the alliance created college and career clusters and pathways and placed them on a college-and-career-readiness website so that students can get a head start on their planning.

In 2010, the alliance developed dual-credit classes in which high school students take college classes taught by high school teachers. This year, more than 2,000 students will take a dual-credit course in McHenry County.

Each spring, MCC partners with local businesses and community organizations to host a career expo for middle and high school students.

The keys to a strong partnership

Capalbo is certain that other community colleges can duplicate the alliance’s work. “More than anything, strong leadership is essential,” he says. “You need buy-in from every superintendent, principal and college leader so they encourage their faculty and staff to tackle the issues together.”

Other important factors are honesty and having an open dialogue. Teachers, counselors and others in the alliance meet regularly to discuss ongoing challenges and continue to find solutions.

“All of this can be replicated,” Capalbo says. “It’s built on relationships and focusing on the same end game: getting more college graduates.”

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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