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Santa Rosa Junior College and Casa Grande High student Xinena Arias takes notes Thursday, June 16, 2022, during professor Tracey Johnson’s intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. Come fall, such “pre-transfer level” classes in math and English will be entirely phased out, meaning students who want to take those courses will have to go to an online college, like University of Phoenix, to knock them out. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

‘We know what works’: Santa Rosa Junior College ditches remedial classes amid statewide debate over student tracking

It doesn’t take long to compare the math course offerings at Santa Rosa Junior College this past spring and in the upcoming fall semester to see dramatic changes are underway.

Several math classes have been eliminated from the catalog for the next school year, which starts Aug. 15 at the 104-year-old community college.

Elementary algebra, intermediate algebra and intermediate algebra for business and STEM majors — all “pre-transfer level” or remedial courses — will no longer be offered.

Santa Rosa Junior College math professor Tracey Johnson works through a slope equation Thursday, June 16, 2022, while teaching an intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. Such “pre-transfer level” classes in math and English will be entirely phased out in the fall across the state. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Santa Rosa Junior College math professor Tracey Johnson works through a slope equation Thursday, June 16, 2022, while teaching an intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. Such “pre-transfer level” classes in math and English will be entirely phased out in the fall across the state. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

In the English department, a smaller but similar shift also is apparent. Just one remedial course was offered in spring, English 100, and it will not return.

Depending on who you ask, the change is either a sign of progress toward equity in California’s community college system or a troubling overreach that could present barriers for legions of students in need of basic instruction.

It is one of the fiercest higher education debates in California, home of the nation’s largest community college system, serving about 1.4 million students.

Reform advocates argue remedial classes saddle students — most of them people of color — with more debt and hinder their progress toward completing their degrees. But supporters of remedial classes say they fill a critical need for students who may be returning to school after a long gap or who didn’t receive instruction in high school to prepare them for college-level work.

The debate is part of a broader shift in California’s and the nation’s approach to educating students without grade- or course-level proficiency in math and English. The transformation comes at a complicated time as schools deal with learning disruptions wrought by the pandemic and locally by years of disastrous wildfires.

But even as that discussion plays out in Sacramento and beyond, many of California’s 116 community colleges, including in Santa Rosa, are already ordering up big changes, dropping remedial classes that have been staples of their course catalogs for generations of students.

A Santa Rosa Junior College student takes notes during professor Tracey Johnson’s intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa Thursday June 16, 2022. Come fall, such "pre-transfer level" classes in math and English will be entirely phased out.   (Chad Surmick / Press Democrat)
A Santa Rosa Junior College student takes notes during professor Tracey Johnson’s intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa Thursday June 16, 2022. Come fall, such "pre-transfer level" classes in math and English will be entirely phased out. (Chad Surmick / Press Democrat)

The shift has sparked fresh controversy, with many worried about the unintended fallout on students who depend on remedial classes.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, math faculty in particular are worried about their ability to provide all students sufficient support to pass college-level courses upon enrolling. They note that certain certificate and associate degree programs don’t require college-level math.

“If we’re not allowed to offer anything below transfer-level … it goes back to the student groups that aren’t looking to transfer,” said Tim Melvin, chair of the math department. “Their education’s gotten more difficult.”

But Santa Rosa Junior College leadership characterized the transition differently.

“We are not abandoning our students,” said Jane Saldaña-Talley, outgoing vice president of academic affairs.

“If anything, we are saying to our students, ‘We believe in you, we believe that you can do this work, and we are here to provide the supports to make sure that you can accomplish your education goals.’”

Santa Rosa Junior College math professor Tracey Johnson works through a few interval notation lessons Thursday, June 16, 2022, while teaching an intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Santa Rosa Junior College math professor Tracey Johnson works through a few interval notation lessons Thursday, June 16, 2022, while teaching an intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Building on earlier legislation

The junior college’s move to eliminate remedial classes reflects both compliance with existing law and anticipation of a new piece of legislation that could reach Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk this summer.

Assembly Bill 1705 would strengthen and clarify legislation that sought to steer community colleges away from remedial classes and increase the numbers of students enrolled in college-level math and English, based on data that shows that approach benefits students.

It also includes a request for $64 million to help community colleges implement the changes.

The move to eliminate remedial courses is more than a decade in the making. It has developed out of research over the past two decades, with studies showing students are less likely to graduate if they start college in classes that focus on below college-level material.

A future without remedial courses

Assembly Bill 1705, which would strengthen and clarify legislation that sought to steer community colleges away from remedial classes, passed the state Assembly on May 25 and reached the Senate’s education committee by June 1.

The education committee forwarded the bill on June 22 to the appropriations committee to examine its fiscal impact.

Assembly member Jacqui Irwin, who introduced AB 1705, has requested a $64 million one-time funding investment to support community colleges as they work on the transition to supporting students in transfer-level classes, according to the California Acceleration Project, a faculty-led group focused on improving outcomes for students.

Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, the Senate majority leader and member of the education committee, took remedial classes when he entered Santa Rosa Junior College. But he said the data on the limitations of remedial education has shaped his perspective.

“I think that bills like what we’ve seen with AB 705, plus enhanced investment in classes, is the secret to success,” McGuire said. “The best investment this state can make is in our students and strong public schools.”

Tim Melvin, Santa Rosa Junior College’s math chair, said his department could use such funding when considering what transfer-level courses to offer across the years. In its research, the California Acceleration Project has highlighted financial literacy or liberal arts math classes that some campuses are offering.

Still, Melvin said, it would take time to develop curriculum and get approval for such courses.

“Even if we worked at lightning speed, the earliest these classes could be offered would be fall 2023 or more likely, spring 2024,” he said.

The California Acceleration Project, a faculty-led group focused on improving outcomes for students, has helped lead the charge since 2010 to study the effectiveness of remedial education at community colleges and, based on those findings, phase it out.

Daniel Ramierez, a first-year student at Santa Rosa Junior College, takes notes Thursday, June 16, 2022, during math professor Tracey Johnson’s intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Daniel Ramierez, a first-year student at Santa Rosa Junior College, takes notes Thursday, June 16, 2022, during math professor Tracey Johnson’s intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Studies have shown students who begin community college in remedial English and math classes — which do not help fulfill graduation requirements at four-year colleges — are unlikely to pass college-level courses in those subjects within a year. That metric, advocates say, is a good indicator of students’ likelihood of completing their degrees.

According to data from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, the share of students who passed transfer-level classes in both math and English dramatically increases as remedial class requirements are eliminated. Those findings come from data collected across the 116 campuses since the 2010-11 school year.

The data showed improvement in student academic performance over years as remedial courses were stripped away. In 2014-15, the 39,630 students enrolled in California community colleges, or 25% of newly enrolled students that year, passed a college-level math class within a year of enrollment.

By 2019-20, that number rose to 72,976 students, making up 50% of newly enrolled students across a smaller overall student body.

In English, the percentage of students who passed a transfer-level class within a year of enrollment increased from 47% in 2014-15 to 67% in 2019-20.

Katie Hern, a co-founder of the California Acceleration Project and an English instructor at Skyline College in San Bruno, said she understands why talk about phasing out remedial classes elicits concern from some educators.

“It’s very often coming from a responsible place of care for students,” she said. “But the evidence is very, very clear: Students are much better off when we let them directly enroll into transferable college-level classes.”

The group’s work helped spur Assembly Bill 705, which took effect in January 2018. It was an initial step to push California’s community colleges away from offering remedial, or pre-transfer level, classes.

Santa Rosa Junior College math professor Tracey Johnson works through a few interval notation lessons Thursday, June 16, 2022, while teaching an intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Santa Rosa Junior College math professor Tracey Johnson works through a few interval notation lessons Thursday, June 16, 2022, while teaching an intermediate algebra class in Santa Rosa. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

The bill strengthened existing law requiring community colleges to use multiple measures, rather than placement exams, to determine math and English placement. Those included high school coursework, grades and grade-point average.

Community colleges were required to enroll students in transfer-level courses unless they had evidence to believe a student would be “highly unlikely to succeed” in those classes.

For allied lawmakers and advocates, full implementation of the law meant eventually phasing out remedial classes entirely.

“The data (shows) that remedial classes are a profoundly broken solution to anything that you think is ailing students.” Katie Hern, California Acceleration Project

But individual campuses have tackled the changes with varying degrees of urgency. Some have continued to offer remedial classes several tiers below transfer-level, which spurred the new legislation.

Most colleges, including Santa Rosa Junior College, have made progress in the past few years while adding other support for students who would have enrolled in remedial classes.

Sheryl Cavales-Doolan, chair of the English department at Santa Rosa Junior College, described the process in her department. While winnowing remedial class offerings, they have increased extra support in college-level courses to help students refresh basic skills they are rusty on.

An example is English 50, a “corequisite” course, designed by the department “to enhance and support students' critical reading, writing, thinking, and research skills for effective participation in and successful completion of English 1A,” according to the course description.

“It’s not been without controversy, the AB 705 changes, but what it’s really done has given us an opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Cavales-Doolan said. “I would say it’s really galvanized our department’s commitment to (asking), ‘How we are going to best support our students?’”

An extreme solution?

Still, some students and teachers are not ready to abandon remedial education, especially in math.

Many students are not ready for college-level math right away, Melvin said. Requiring they complete a college-level course within a year of enrollment could have unintended consequences, he said.

Grace Gideon, 33, didn’t pass a transfer-level class within a year of enrolling at the junior college in 2013. When she started, she had a son in kindergarten and hadn’t been in school for seven years, so she enrolled in a pre-algebra course.

She didn’t pass her first college-level math class until five years later. By the metric used in the research fueling the AB 1705 push, Gideon’s path would not have been considered successful.

But this spring, nine years later, she graduated from the junior college with five associate degrees and was a speaker at commencement. She’s heading to the University of California, Berkeley, where she hopes to study quantum mechanics.

Grace Gideon, student speaker, gives a speech to the crowd Saturday, May 28, 2022, during Santa Rosa Junior College’s 103rd annual Commencement program at the college’s Santa Rosa campus. (Darryl Bush / For The Press Democrat)
Grace Gideon, student speaker, gives a speech to the crowd Saturday, May 28, 2022, during Santa Rosa Junior College’s 103rd annual Commencement program at the college’s Santa Rosa campus. (Darryl Bush / For The Press Democrat)

Before taking pre-algebra at the junior college, Gideon thought she disliked math. That all changed in her remedial course, she said.

“I completely fell in love with math and changed my major,” she said. “When I came into the math class, it felt very safe and structured, giving me this stability and a place where I could actually solve problems.”

Advocates for remedial courses point out that California’s high school graduation requirement for math only reaches up to algebra I. That’s several tiers below college-level math, which begins at pre-calculus or statistics, both of which require understanding of concepts covered in algebra II.

As a result, a high school graduate can show up to community college without having taken the classes that would prepare them for college-level math.

“To do something so drastic right when we’re coming out of the pandemic, it seems disingenuous. Turning off all (remedial) options is also inequitable.” Tim Melvin, chair of the Santa Rosa Junior College Math department

Those who favor dropping remedial classes point to increased offerings of college-prep courses in some of Sonoma County’s school districts, including Santa Rosa City Schools. The math course sequence that satisfies admissions criteria for both the University of California and California State University systems, for example, includes completion of algebra I, geometry and algebra II.

But amid the disruptions from wildfires and their residual effects, including smoke days and power shut-offs, as well as the year-plus of remote learning during the pandemic, many local students are not completing the CSU and UC prep requirements.

In Santa Rosa City Schools, for example, the rate of graduates who successfully completed all the requirements has dropped 14% in the past five years.

In 2021, the share hit a low point of 1,905 graduates, or 11.4%, according to data shared by the school district.

That type of data and conversations with local high school math teachers have Melvin concerned about the state’s big pivot away from remedial classes.

“To do something so drastic right when we’re coming out of the pandemic, it seems disingenuous,” he said. “Turning off all (remedial) options is also inequitable.”

Debate hits home on campus

Shawn Smith, who is studying nursing at the junior college, returned to school in fall 2021, 27 years after he dropped out of eighth grade. He went on to complete a GED in 2009, but passing college-level math upon his entry to the junior college was “not ever going to be possible,” he said.

The remedial course in which he earned an A last fall set him up to pass statistics and chemistry, he said.

Shawn Smith on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, helps his kids, Benson, left, and Faith, check on the progress of their pumpkins in the garden of their Petaluma home. Smith returned to Santa Rosa Junior College to become a nurse and credits remedial math classes with helping him achieve his goals. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Shawn Smith on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, helps his kids, Benson, left, and Faith, check on the progress of their pumpkins in the garden of their Petaluma home. Smith returned to Santa Rosa Junior College to become a nurse and credits remedial math classes with helping him achieve his goals. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

“Had I not taken this class, I know for a fact I would have failed,” Smith said. “And it would have crushed me. It wouldn’t have been worth it to me (to continue school).”

Now, he said, he’s earning A’s in all his courses. But failing early on, he said, would have cemented fears he long harbored about himself as a student: “See, I knew school wasn’t for me. I knew I was dumb.”

An online petition from Santa Rosa Junior College community members opposing AB 1705 had nearly 2,000 signatures this week. The Faculty Association of California Community Colleges has also come out against the bill.

In response to the criticism, though, proponents of eliminating remedial education point back to the data. Though individual students or small groups may find success, they said, research shows more evidence to refute the benefit of a remedial approach than affirm it.

Hern highlighted data from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office that tracks outcomes for students with disabilities. Those students who start in transfer-level math still consistently pass those classes at much higher rates in a year than they do if they start in remedial classes.

In 2019-20, 53% of students receiving disability services passed their transfer-level math classes within a year. If they started in a remedial class one level below college-level, though, only 13% passed a college-level math class within a year.

“Yes, they may face challenges, but they’re not better off starting in remedial classes,” Hern said.

Shawn Smith helps his kids, Benson, left, and Faith, cut up zucchini Wednesday, July 6, 2022, for dinner in their Petaluma home. Smith returned to Santa Rosa Junior College to become a nurse and credits remedial math classes with helping him achieve his goals. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Shawn Smith helps his kids, Benson, left, and Faith, cut up zucchini Wednesday, July 6, 2022, for dinner in their Petaluma home. Smith returned to Santa Rosa Junior College to become a nurse and credits remedial math classes with helping him achieve his goals. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Proponents also point out the pitfalls of continuing to offer remedial education. One is that Black and Latino students are disproportionately represented in remedial classes wherever they are offered and also complete college-level classes at lower rates.

“The data (shows) that remedial classes are a profoundly broken solution to anything that you think is ailing students,” Hern said. “If you are really worried that disrupted learning has left students more ill-prepared for college, which I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to think, then the solution is to increase your corequisite offerings.”

Hern also described offering “just in time” supports as a way to assist students. For example, she teaches two versions of a freshman composition class.

Students who need extra support enroll in the version of her course with longer class time, so she can work with students who need extra support or review of foundational concepts.

Robert Holcomb, new vice president of academic affairs, who took over for Saldaña-Talley in July, said the junior college also will examine ways to boost tutoring support. Skill development courses are another resource. Those courses are not for credit, but they are free to enrolled students, Holcomb said.

“Even though it isn’t part of the credit sequence, they’re free, repeatable,” Holcomb said. “They may just have to buy a book.”

Santa Rosa Junior College leaders expressed confidence that this strategy of additional supports will ensure students who might have previously enrolled in remedial courses will still get what they need to succeed.

“We know what works,” Saldaña-Talley said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how we can scale it up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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