jump start

A new program to catch students up for college, without remediation

PHOTO: Tim Carroll
Kellie Zolnikov (left) and Kaitling Carrasco (right) discuss a math problem in peer study session. Zolnikov helps manage Metro State's SAI program.

Wanda Holopainen was struggling with a math problem involving the probability of winning a cash prize in a charity ball raffle. Holopainen, who attends Metropolitan State University of Denver, got distracted in lecture and missed the explanation, which proved important with the last test of the semester looming.

“I learned all this in high school,” she said. “But I don’t remember it.”

Holopainen, who is originally from Finland and sometimes faces language barriers in class, scored low enough on the ACT math section that, after being admitted to Metro, she would ordinarily be required to take a remedial math course at a community college to catch up. That could take her as many as three semesters, for which she would receive no credits towards a college degree.

And since Holopainen also struggled on the reading and writing portions, it could take even longer before she was out of community college and working towards a four-year degree.

But now she and other students like her, who teeter on the edge of needing remediation, have the opportunity to skip that drawn out process and jump right into college-level class through an approach known as supplemental academic instruction (SAI).

The program, which aims to get students up to speed within a traditional university like Metro State, is known as supplemental academic instruction. Alongside their normal classes, students receive extra support ranging from tutoring and peer study sessions to extra class time where students can receive targeted one-on-one help.

The goal? Reduce the number of students who may never make it back from a remedial course into a college-level course or receive a degree.

Hard work to reduce dropouts

In 2011, nearly 10,000 Colorado students faced the prospect of having to take remedial courses in order to enroll in a college course. That’s 40 percent of last year’s freshman class of Colorado students at the state’s universities.

And the graduation rates for those students are low; only one in ten students enrolled in remedial courses in Colorado graduate from community colleges within three years. One in five Colorado students taking remedial courses graduate from a four-year college.

At Metro State, many incoming students have graduated from low-performing high schools or are returning to college after years in the workforce. Last year, the state reported that the school had one of the highest rates of students who were required to complete remedial classes before they could enroll, and it also posted some of the state’s lowest graduation rates.

Those extra challenges prompted faculty members to explore the idea of finding a way to provide support at the school itself, instead of sending students to a community college after they had already been admitted.

“They’d get admitted and then we told them, ‘you can’t really take our classes,’” said Jessica Parker, a professor in Metro State’s English department. “These are our students and we really wanted to keep them here.”

So her department, along with the math department, applied for special permission from the state to enroll students in first year college courses who would ordinarily, by state statute, have been bound for remedial courses. Both departments developed their own cutoffs and methods for assessing students’ abilities.

In the English department, that includes ACT scores, an additional test and an essay. About ten percent of students place out of remediation based on the quality of their essay and many of those, Parker says, do just as well as their peers who scored higher on the ACT. Those students who still exhibit a need for extra support enroll in one of two programs: an extended version of the introductory writing class spread over two semesters or the regular course with an additional writing lab.

In either case, Parker keeps a close eye on their performance, so she or their instructor can intervene if their performance drops.

“It’s hard work with support,” said Parker.

Students who are enrolled in the typical introductory class aren’t separated out in a designated section of the course but mingle with their peers. The goal is to show that, given the opportunity, those students succeed as well.

“Traditional remediation is based on the idea that you’re going back to something that you failed to learn initially,” said Parker. Instead, the program is about saying, “we know you can do this and we’ll give you the support you need.”

So far, her hopes have panned out. The English department, which served about 110 students total this year, has seen a substantial decrease in the number of low grades and incompletes in the first year course. And the pass rate for the SAI program is 88 percent, considerably higher than the general course.

In math, the pass rate for students in the SAI program was seven points higher than those who did not receive support.

A mental shift for colleges

At the moment, Metro State is the only institution in the state running a supplemental support program to prevent remediation, although three others submitted applications that are still awaiting approval. State officials hope to see even more schools take it on, after a 2012 law loosened the requirements for how students should be remediated and opened the door for programs like Metro State’s.

But other states have already adopted the approach. In Connecticut, SAI (which is also known as corequisite remediation) is mandatory for students needing more than one semester of remediation.

“We’ve known for a long time that students who are placed into remediation don’t do as well,” said Bruce Vandal, the vice president for Complete College America, which — as its title suggests — works on strategies to increase college retention and graduation rates. In some cases, that’s been used as way to see if students are ready for college.

“The thinking is [that] we give these students a chance in remediation and if they don’t make it, the line of thinking that they weren’t ready after all comes into play,” said Vandal.

Rather than attributing students’ failures to the fact that they weren’t ready in the first place, many institutions are beginning to find ways, including SAI, to support the students they admit. As part of the shift, Vandal said, institutions are going to need to find a way to eliminate so-called “attrition points” where large numbers of students drop out — including remedial courses.

“Higher education has always been viewed as a privilege, not a right,” Vandal said. “But with research saying to have any way of getting into the middle class, you need a college education, [college] can’t be exclusive.”

Part of making the shift has been using tests like the ACT how state officials say they’re intended: to test students’ skills, not to shut them out.

“The way it’s always been is you either pass that test or you fail,” said Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia, who has supported a series of education initiatives targeted at improving the state’s graduation rates at both the K-12 and college level. “But maybe you forget that one thing about how to divide fractions and we can remind you of it and you’ve got it.”

But it hasn’t been an easy change for everyone, including the state’s community colleges.

“The community colleges resisted [SAI] at first because [remediation] is a huge revenue source,” said Garcia. But, he says, the shift could also save the state some of the millions of dollars it pays out for students taking remedial courses.

And community colleges have begun to adapt, too.

“Even there, they’re going to try and do [remediation] in less time,” said Garcia. ”

Instead of three semesters of remedial math, they’re going to try and do it in one or two semesters.”

“We feed ideas off of each other”

Some of the shift in thinking is apparent in Holopainen’s approach to filling in the gap created by her wandering attention in class. Rather than ignoring it or assuming she was simply incapable of learning it, she brought it to her peer study group, a close knit group of girls who mix gentle teasing and concentrated effort during their biweekly meetings.

“You weren’t paying attention,” nagged Kaitlin Carrasco when Holopainen raised her confusion. But Carrasco and the others walked Holopainen through the problem. And then Carrasco raised her own confusions and the process repeated itself.

“We feed ideas off of each other,” said Carrasco. “Someone has one part and someone has another.”

And when that fails, they turn to their peer study instructor, whose role is to drift around the classroom asking and answering student questions.

Carrasco’s instructor, Kellie Zolnikov, who also helps manage the math department’s program, said that having multiple perspectives, including several from their own peers, can help students who struggle to relate to their professors. And it gives students a toolbox, rather than just a tool.

“Here’s another way to do it in case your brain needs it” is Zolnikov’s description of her approach.

Although this sounds like it should be happening in most classes, Carrasco says it’s not. In fact, she says math is the only class where that sort of conversation happens.

And it’s made a difference in her learning and her attitude toward the class.

“I hated math in high school,” said Carrasco. “But now that I get it, math is still kind of horrible, but I can handle it.” She’s signed up to take math with Zolnikov in the fall and is considering going into business management.

According to Parker, that’s a sign the program is working. It takes the shame out of needing help.

“One teacher says it’s a privilege, not a punishment,” she said. And according to student surveys, many of the program’s participants agree.

hands on

Apprenticeships are now open for the second round of CareerWise high school students

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
Denver student Quang Nguyen works at an internship this past summer.

More than half the companies that signed on for the launch of Colorado’s apprenticeship program CareerWise have renewed and plan to take on a second group of apprentices this fall, while a number of new companies have added programs.

That means there are 160 new openings for Colorado high school students in fields ranging from manufacturing to information technology to healthcare, a 33 percent increase from the 120 positions available to the first group of students last year.

CareerWise offers three-year apprenticeships to students starting in their junior year of high school. It’s based on the Swiss apprenticeship model and was conceived by Gov. John Hickenlooper and businessman Noel Ginsburg, who is himself now a candidate for governor, after a trip to Switzerland in 2015. The first apprentices started in 2017.

Brad Revare, CareerWise’s director of business partnerships, said most of the companies that didn’t renew are small firms that don’t feel like they have the capacity to take on a second apprentice right now. Some are still deciding if they’ll renew — this recruitment cycle hasn’t closed — and some companies have said they plan to take a second apprentice when the first apprentice is in his or her third year so that the older student can serve as a mentor.

Revare said the renewal rate has been a pleasant surprise.

“We didn’t anticipate this high of a renewal rate,” he said. “We believe that demonstrates that partnerships aren’t just a good corporate citizen thing, but a good return-on-investment business decision. To sign up for a second cohort when the first cohort is only on the job for six months speaks to the value of this program.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done for the program to achieve its goals, though. The charge from the governor, who has made workforce training and apprenticeships one of his priorities, is to have 20,000 high school students in apprenticeship programs within 10 years. He reiterated that goal in his State of the State address Thursday.

The renewing companies include Arrow Electronics, the city of Grand Junction, University of Colorado Denver, DaVita, DH Wholesale Signs, DT Swiss, EKS&H, Geotech Environmental, Gordon Sign, HomeAdvisor, Intertech Medical, Intertech Plastics, Mesa 51, Mile High United Way, Monument Health, Nordson Medical, Prostar Geocorp, Research Electro-Optics, SAS Manufacturing, Skillful, Stonebridge, Swiftpage, TeleTech, and Western States Fire Protection

New participating businesses for 2018 include Janus Henderson Investors, Otter Products, SAVA Senior Care, the city of Aurora, and the governor’s Office of Information Technology.

CareerWise is still recruiting more businesses for 2018.

To find an apprenticeship, check out CareerWise’s Marketplace.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.