How one California community college allows students to skip remedial English

Credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn/EdSourceCuyamaca College student Meina Shammas sits in a professor’s office.Credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn/EdSourceCuyamaca College student Meina Shammas sits in a professor’s office.Until recently, most students at Cuyamaca College near San Diego had to take multiple English remedial classes before they could enter the English course that mattered most to many — the one they needed to transfer into a four-year college.
Some of those courses at the community college focused on one task: writing a five-sentence paragraph for the entire semester.
It was elementary-school work for college students, said Lauren Halsted Burroughs, the chair of the English department at Cuyamaca.
But starting this school year, all of Cuyamaca College’s students are being placed in an English course that is required for admission into a University of California or California State University campus. Unlike remedial classes, students would get credit for these courses required for transfer, removing a chief hurdle many students faced as they sought entry into the state’s public universities.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series about major reforms in remedial education at California’s public colleges and universities, or what educators now refer to as “developmental education.” The changes aim to push more students to graduate on time.
It also put the college a year ahead of the deadline all community colleges will face in the fall of 2019 to allow students to more easily transfer into a four-year college and graduate. That deadline is the result of Assembly Bill 705, passed unanimously by the state Legislature in 2017.
The new rules move the college system away from a standard that resulted in most students taking the remedial courses, which cost time and money, but afforded no credit for transferring to a UC or CSU campus.
Cuyamaca College’s actions come on the heels of several other reforms that gradually chipped away at the college’s remedial course requirements. In 2011, just 17 percent of their students in college for the first time passed an English course that met transfer requirements in one year. By 2016, that figure jumped to 59 percent. With virtually all students taking a course required for transfer going forward, that figure is likely to rise, college officials say.
In recent years several other community colleges have been allowing more of their students to skip remedial classes and enroll directly into English classes that satisfy transfer requirements instead.
“I felt sad that we did that to students for years,” said Cuyamaca College English professor Marvelyn Bucky, referring to students forced to take remedial courses. She was one of the coordinators overseeing the remedial English program at Cuyamaca College. “And we did that to help students because initially we thought they need these skills.”
She calls California’s community college system’s transformation a “revelation, a revolution.”
The lessons from Cuyamaca College may prove helpful to others undergoing this revolution.
“We had a lot of reluctance here in the beginning,” Burroughs said. “It was looking at our data” that forced the college to make the changes.
And as other colleges race to be ready for next fall, some instructors will have to make peace with the role they played in propping up an educational approach that barred capable students from taking transfer-level courses, Burroughs said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Laura Hope, who until mid-January was executive vice chancellor at California Community Colleges and previously taught English for nearly 20 years. “It’s very painful to me to think about … the ways I perpetuated things, endorsed things, advocated for things that didn’t help students. It rocked me,” she said at a conference for community college faculty and staff in October. “But when you know better, you do better.”
To aid its overhaul, Cuyamaca College received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office in 2016 to improve remedial education. The money went toward writing a new curriculum and staff training that included attending seminars on improving remedial education and developing lesson plans. Part of the money was also used to train part-time faculty to teach the new courses.
“That’s a big investment. We are really terrible in this system in investing in part-timers,” said Pat Setzer, vice president of instruction at Cuyamaca College.
So that students who otherwise would be in remedial courses receive the extra help they need, Cuyamaca College in 2016 created a class that gives students an extra hour of support each week in their English course required for transfer. It’s an approach called a corequisite class that’s gained popularity in U.S. colleges. The additional hour, which can be a separate course or added to an existing one, gives students more time to work with their instructors on essays, complex sentence structure, grammar and understanding reading assignments.
Students who had below a 2.6 GPA in high school are placed in the corequisite class, similar to recommendations the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office released this summer.
Supporting the recommendations was a large research project based on about 1 million community college student records. It showed that students who took a placement test and were supposed to go into a remedial course but instead took a course required for transfer passed at much higher rates within a year than students who pursued the traditional remedial route.
Cuyamaca College English instructor Karen Marrujo said students in her corequisite class benefit from the extra hour of instruction because she can help them analyze the reading text rather than just summarizing it — an important skill for college writing.
The greater emphasis on analysis and understanding the reading material has made a big difference for Yesenia Gonzalez, an 18-year-old in Marrujo’s class who finished with a B last semester.
In high school, she said she’d have 30 minutes to write an essay in class, with minimal feedback. The extra hour of support better meets her pacing needs and has helped her writing improve.
“Before I used to just get all the information and just shove it into one paragraph,” Gonzalez said. Today, she’s more patient in her writing and approaches themes with greater detail.
A key part of her transformation she attributes to being able to use “I” in her essays — something she was told to avoid in high school. That may seem like a small change, but Marrujo believes allowing students to construct arguments using the first-person singular gives them more confidence.
“I consider it an issue of equity where we’re telling students that their voice is not valid, that their experiences are not valid,” Marrujo said. She pointed to accomplished authors who use personal observations to reinforce a central argument about how societies behave, like novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”
And more diverse reading assignments helped James Caton. The automotive major was taking his first English class with Marrujo since graduating high school in 2014. “It opens you to think more about not being so closed-minded,” Caton said.
The structure in a corequisite class should change, as well, Bucky said. Whereas in traditional English classes instructors expect students to do their readings for homework, in corequisite classes the instructors should have their students read part of the assigned texts in class. That allows the instructors to help students identify important themes and begin looking for concepts to write about. “You can’t just expect the students to know what they’re doing,” Bucky said. “You have to be a better teacher.”
Because Cuyamaca College ended the practice of teaching reading and writing separately in 2016, Bucky said instructors had to learn to merge the two disciplines together. She grades her students in part on what they’re circling in their reading assignments or notes they’re writing in the margins — and shows off good annotations in class. “This is what academic readers do,” Bucky said. “And many of my students have never done that.”
Marking up his reading with questions and underlined passages is a message Tristan Gahn, a student in Marrujo’s class, has been getting from his peers. “I’ve been told I should do that more,” he said. The 18-year-old has been struggling with the reading assignments, sometimes needing five or six attempts to complete the required reading.
Sending most students into English courses that satisfy transfer requirements does come with risks for students and faculty, however.
For one, there are fewer courses to teach at Cuyamaca College, meaning there’s a need for fewer part-time faculty members.
Other instructors may notice that students in corequisite courses with that extra hour of support have slightly lower success rates than students who didn’t need the extra support. In fall 2017, 70 percent of Cuyamaca College students taking English courses for transfer with support passed with a C or higher and the average GPA was 2.62. Among students taking English without support, the pass rate was 76 percent and the average GPA was 2.78.
Some students may want to enroll in remedial classes because they’ll feel more prepared for the English courses required for transfer that follow.
That’s one reason Meina Shammas thinks starting off in remedial English was better for her. The 26-year-old first took an accelerated 5-unit course that collapsed several levels of remedial English into one remedial course. From there she entered an English course that would transfer, earning an A.
Without the remedial class first, Shammas thinks she would have gotten a C instead, which would have signaled that “I didn’t do well, I’m not prepared for the university,” said Shammas, who applied to UC San Diego and San Diego State this fall. That’s a concern Burroughs has also heard from other students.
But Shammas thinks good teaching can still lead to good grades for students who are skipping remedial classes and are taking courses for transfer instead. The teachers “need to be well-trained,” Shammas said. “They need to have a good syllabus and they need to know what they are doing.”
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