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Basic Skills Education
Pasadena City College’s Teaching and Learning Center

By Kay Mills
Pasadena, California

René Cabrera helps Chris Pope with his pre-algebra homework, then moves to a neighboring desk to tutor another fellow student at Pasadena City College’s Teaching and Learning Center. Cabrera, who is taking Calculus II after getting an A in trigonometry last winter, says he, too, started college “as a student seeking help.” He knows what it’s like to be frustrated.

In his high school, Cabrera recalls, “math was portrayed poorly,” and he didn’t do well, getting low grades in geometry and algebra. A high school counselor told him he didn’t need to take a second year of algebra. “He said I wasn’t going to college, so I didn’t need it.”

The middle child of five, Cabrera and his sister are the first in their family to attend college. He is just two courses away from getting his associate’s degree and transferring to a four-year university, ultimately aiming for a Ph.D. in mathematics. He loves to read math books in the library and hopes to make a contribution to that field.

The Teaching and Learning Center (TLC), which helped Cabrera and works with 300 to 400 other students in its core programs, is an eight-year-old holistic approach to guiding underprepared students through math, English and other challenges of college. It is also trying to revolutionize the way faculty look at their students and teach them. The center’s approach is one that is spreading through California community colleges and across the country, cross-fertilizing as it goes.

With the nation’s largest community college enrollment, 2.6 million students at 110 schools, California is among many states working to improve programs for underprepared students. It established a Basic Skills Initiative in 2006. Last year the California legislature allocated $33.1 million to the state’s community college system for this initiative, making it an annual program for research and for implementing changes.

Across the country, 15 other states, ranging from Washington State to Florida, and including 83 community colleges, are participating in an effort, supported by the Lumina Foundation of Indianapolis, to improve developmental education programs. For example, Washington State has produced a math assessment test to determine students’ readiness for college-level work and hopes to administer it to at least some high school juniors and seniors next year, budget permitting. California has a similar test, but only those students hoping to attend a California State University take it.

 
Pasadena City College President Paulette J. Perfumo hopes to find permanent funding for the college’s successful Teaching and Learning Center.
(Photo by Axel Koester, for CrossTalk)
 
One approach encouraged by the California initiative and long practiced at Pasadena City College’s center involves what educators call “learning communities,” students who take a series of linked courses together during their time on campus. Schools throughout the United States have turned to this concept. A 2002 survey by the Policy Center on the First Year of College, in Brevard, North Carolina, found that among 341 responding community colleges, 60 percent offered learning community programs. That’s the last year for which data are available, but experts say the figure is higher now because so much research has appeared underlining the value of this approach.

PCC’s center combines learning communities with a summer program, tutoring and counseling services, heavy faculty involvement with students, and built-in research leading to creation of new programs. Its work has yielded higher success rates for its students—a majority of whom are Hispanic—than those of the overall campus population, although all of the students in the core “.XL” program tested below college-level in either math or English or both.

The program is called .XL because that “sounded high tech,” said co-director Brock Klein. It also means “excel.” Its three student cohorts from 2005 to 2007 had a 78.5 percent success rate, meaning students completed classes with a C or better, compared to a 65.9 percent rate for all PCC students, including those who intend to transfer to four-year schools, and 59.4 percent for students in basic skills classes that are not part of the Teaching and Learning Center.

The college, located in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County, this fall enrolled 29,857 full-time and part-time students. The city of Pasadena, about ten miles north of downtown Los Angeles, once was considered a white enclave, but its population has changed. The college district’s area now has no majority ethnic group. Today PCC’s student body is 37 percent Hispanic.

Pasadena City College has seen a surge in first-generation college students, posing challenges for the school. California community colleges admit virtually all comers, and in fall 2007, 61 percent of new PCC students placed below collegelevel in English proficiency, and 88 percent were below college-level proficiency in math.

“The way we did business in the past is not the way we can do business in the future,” said Robert Miller, Pasadena’s associate dean for academic support. “It doesn’t matter why” the students lack college- level proficiency, he added. “They are here.”

Asked whether high schools should have prepared these students better, Klein said, “It’s easy to point fingers. You deal with what you have.” It would be nice, he added, “if there were a silver bullet to fix the schools. But if there were, we would have found it already.”

 
Carlos “Tito” Altamirano (left) joins René Cabrera (right), as he tutors Chris Pope at the Teaching and Learning Center at Pasadena City College.
(Photo by Axel Koester, for CrossTalk)
 
The Teaching and Learning Center staff doesn’t wait for students to come to them—it recruits actively. Outreach coordinator Melva Alvarez works with 11 area high schools, telling students what is available to help them, and making sure “they are on the right path from beginning to end.” Typically, Alvarez receives 300 to 350 cards from high school students indicating their interest in attending PCC; of that number, 200 take an assessment test (it is not mandatory for the college but is encouraged for TLC programs), and 120 actually sign up.

In addition to the learning communities, another aspect of the center’s basic skills work is Math Jam, a two-week, noncredit summer program that tries to introduce students to college math by making it fun. A third element, summer bridge, is a required program for all students enrolled in most .XL programs that not only immerses them in math, reading and writing but also helps them learn about the campus and the learning communities. Victor Aquino, who attended the summer program before his fall classes this year, said that without the program, “I would have started here without any friends.” Having the same people in his classes makes it easier to “get into groups to talk about math or brainstorm about doing your essays.”

Extensive tutoring is available weekdays from 30 tutors (13 paid, and 17 volunteer) at the TLC lab, which doubles as the program’s offices. There are frequent field trips, such as the one taken by an oceanography class to the Arroyo Seco, not far from campus. The trip enabled students to see firsthand the forces—man-made as well as seismic—affecting the flow of water from the narrow trickle in a creek bed near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the Pacific Ocean.

Ongoing analysis has regularly led to refocusing the program. For example, a second-level summer bridge session was added to try to reduce the number of dropouts after the first year of classes. TLC also added .XL experiences aimed at students planning to enter nursing or other health sciences, business, art or teaching. “Where we were in 2000, we aren’t now,” said Klein.

Statistics show that these approaches produce results. For example, TLC reports that 25 percent of the group of students who began the .XL program in summer 2005 finished remedial math classes and registered for transfer-level math classes at the end of nine semesters, compared to 11.1 percent of other basic skills students.

Statistics are one measuring stick, personal testimonies another. Take Carlos “Tito” Altamirano, who is now the TLC lab coordinator. After he was expelled from one high school for carrying a hunting knife he forgetfully left in his backpack after a hiking trip, Altamirano says he woke up and decided to do better in school. But he raced through PCC’s math and English placement tests because his sister had a softball game. He scored low and had to take basic math and English courses.

Altamirano, 26, accidentally signed up for one of the TLC English courses and fell in love with the program. In his first semester he received help from tutors, so he began volunteering for Conexión, a tutor/mentor program. “You have to do it two hours a week minimum, but I was doing it about two hours a day,” he said. “You learn a lot by teaching other people. I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to nouns and verbs and adverbs, but you have to do that when you are tutoring.”

Altamirano graduated from PCC in 2004 and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Southern California in 2006. He is now working toward a USC master’s degree in education in postsecondary administration and student affairs and wants to be a counselor. Meantime, he has also been in the active Marine reserves and served in Iraq as a field radio operator from January to June 2003.

He is what the TLC program considers “a pacer,” that is, “somebody who pushes the community beyond the standard that has been set,” as Klein described it. “Tito was an early member of the peer tutoring group. Soon he was helping on a camping trip,” Klein said, adding that Tito and his father built the obstacle course that students completed as a team exercise for an Outward Bound-style part of the summer program.

Faculty find themselves changed by the program, too. Ann Davis, who joined the math faculty in 2001, got involved with the center when Klein had a pizza party. “I learned there is no such thing as a free lunch,” she said. “I didn’t see the potential until Brock had that party. He said if you want to do something, talk to me.”

Davis started a math faculty inquiry group, a collaborative effort in which professors examine how students learn and how they can improve their teaching. “It completely changed my life. I found leadership skills I didn’t know I had. There was no financial incentive, but people would stay until 10:00 on a Friday night rewriting the curriculum. They were so excited. Brock spun that into completely rewriting the lowest math course.”

Jay Cho, another pre-algebra teacher, shared the lead with Davis in this effort. The group discussed the concepts they wanted their classes to grasp and how to get them there. One tool that Cho developed was “think aloud,” a videotape of his students saying out loud what they were thinking as they tried to solve a math problem.

“As teachers, we assume a lot of stuff about how students learn,” Cho said. “But this way we could see that students do this, and this and this. We could analyze how the students do the work,” he said, and then teach them using those steps.

 
Brock Klein is co-director of Pasadena City College’s “holistic” approach to teaching basic skills.
(Photo by Axel Koester, for CrossTalk)
 
Faculty members also teach their students study skills. Cho tells his math students to label their equations so he will know what they are doing. Silvia Villanueva, who teaches English, wants her students to underline key passages in their reading so that the material will sink in. She urges them to stop and look up words they don’t know. David Douglass, division dean for natural sciences and professor of geology, tells the students on the Arroyo Seco field trip to keep notebooks, put their names in them in case the notes get lost, and include in them the diagrams of faults and sections of the river that he draws on a large portable tablet. It’s his way of making them pay attention and assuring that they’ll have the material to study later.

TLC faculty like Villanueva and Monika Hogan, another English teacher, spend large amounts of class time going over reading material with students. About one-third of the students in Hogan’s English class—the first-level class for college transfer credit—were with her previously in basic classes. The students are preparing for health services careers, and she has them reading Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor.” Hogan talks with the students about any problems they had with the essay and the arguments Sontag used. This is not easy reading, she knows, but the discussion is lively.

What happens to these students when they transfer to four-year colleges or universities where professors might not involve them as much in the class work? Hogan said that the training at PCC “teaches them how to get the help they need. They have a remarkable amount of strategies” toward that end.

Today’s college students are much different to teach than were those of their parents’ generation, said PCC President Paulette J. Perfumo. ”They have on iPods, they are texting, they are working on computers, and at the same time they are answering a question from mom or dad,” she said. “Brain research is showing that all this technology is remapping the brain. You think they are not paying attention, but they are.”

 
High school recruiter Melva Alvarez works with Teaching and Learning Center students Lisette Robles, Ian Galeana and Lauren O’Neill.
(Photo by Axel Koester, for CrossTalk)
 
TLC students face a variety of out-ofclass challenges separating them from more affluent college students. Many have little money, and even though tuition is low—$20 per credit hour—they have nothing left for expensive textbooks, so TLC has a textbook loan program. Other students might miss class because they are the only members of their family who speak English, and grandma needs to go to the doctor. Or their parents don’t see education’s longterm value and insist that they get jobs instead of studying. Or families are evicted from their homes. “One student was supporting herself when her car broke down, and she didn’t have the money to fix it,” so she dropped out of school, Davis recalled.

“What these students work with, I would call daily life struggles that impinge on their ability to focus” on schoolwork, Robert Miller said. “They have responsibilities that extend beyond themselves. We have to have the flexibility and level of caring that allows us to say the rules can be bent and sometimes must be bent.”

The Teaching and Learning Center grew out of a five-year, $2 million Title V Hispanic-Serving Institutions grant from the U.S. Department of Education. That grant allowed the center to develop a variety of learning community models and to transform a former arts studio into the center’s home. Students go there to do their homework and to socialize.

Since 2005, a three-year grant from the Hewlett Foundation, managed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has been helping Pasadena and ten other California community colleges explore ways to teach and assess their students under a program to strengthen basic skills education. Each school has received $100,000 a year. “There’s now a network of faculty and leaders like Brock (Klein)” who are sharing ideas and making their programs into laboratories for change, said Rose Asera, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation.

Asera believes that one key gain from this effort “is the redefinition of professional development—linking it directly to a student program.” Schools can make this work meaningful to faculty, as opposed to the episodic, uncoordinated stabs at it that have often occurred in the past, according to a Carnegie report. “It’s not impossible,” Asera said. “We have examples of it.”

 
David Douglass, a professor of geology, leads Pasadena City College students on an oceanography class field trip, part of the Teaching and Learning Center program.
(Photo by Alex Koester, for CrossTalk)
 
TLC’s funding also includes a threeyear grant from the Irvine Foundation, which the center has used to develop its short summer non-credit programs in math, reading and art. Even a little exposure to math helps students do better in the fall, the center has found. In addition, a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation aims at increasing the number of students receiving degrees in science, technology, education and math.

What would happen to the center if foundation funding dried up? Perfumo, who began her presidency in fall 2008, plans to “work to institutionalize it,” that is, to integrate the program into the regular college budget and academic structure.

“We are fortunate that three years ago the state Basic Skills Initiative was established,” Perfumo said. “So there is money available.” If the grants dried up, she added, “I think we would back-fill it with other money.” The center has been successful not only in helping first-generation college students but “also as a teaching center for faculty. It has become an incubator for innovation and dissemination of that innovation across the campus.”

TLC’s budget is $518,000 a year—for salaries, faculty development stipends, tutors, external evaluation, supplies and the textbook loan program. When asked if it could be a line item in next year’s budget, Perfumo said yes.

California had just passed its 2008-09 budget when Perfumo was interviewed. In the ensuing meltdown of financial markets, even that overdue, stringent budget faced new challenges. No one knows yet what those tests might be.

 
Jay Cho (second from left) meets with some of his Teaching and Learning Center students (left to right): Jonathan Olmos, Martin Rosas, Jennifer Zavala and Carla Gonzalez.
(Photo by Alex Koester, for CrossTalk)
 
Perfumo and the TLC want to increase the program’s impact across the campus. Currently, at most, 1,400 students participate in some part of the center’s work. Klein and co-director Lynn Wright wonder about the program’s scalability. “If an intense, sustained intervention provides the best results, can you scale up?” Klein asked. “Where is the tipping point that it’s too big, the teachers not involved enough, the attention not personal enough?”

Perfumo said that she believes the learning community concept can be of value throughout the college. “Again, research shows that [students] are retained. They do better. They help each other. That’s critical. It’s absolutely magic.”

The California Legislature and the community colleges consider basic skills education “one of the top priorities” upon which postsecondary studies build, according to a June 2008 report from the state’s Legislative Analyst. California’s community colleges provided basic skills instruction to more than 600,000 students in 2006-07, the report said, yet only about 60 percent completed English courses with C grades or better, only 50 percent for basic skills math courses.

The report adds that while research on these efforts has grown considerably, some of the district’s policies and individual schools’ practices diverge from what the research shows to be effective. For example, the report said that many incoming students “do not undergo mandatory assessment,” some are not required to take remedial work within a certain time frame, and substantial numbers are not provided with required orientation and counseling services.

The creation of this Basic Skills Initiative, the spread of learning communities and faculty inquiry groups, the increased attention to community colleges in general on both the state and national level are providing synergy for change, according to Klein. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more likely moment,” he said. “There’s a convergence of energy, interest, opportunity, from government, non-profits, foundations. Lots of people are thinking about community colleges.”


Kay Mills is the author of “This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” and four other books.

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