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offered an answer that new immigrants have given for
generations. “I just want to improve myself,” he said. “I am
interested in having a better life.” Computers are fine, but he
is considering a change to the nursing program, because it
offers immediate steady employment upon graduation, even
in an otherwise tough job market.
LaGuardia has grown from 500 students in 1971 to
nearly 12,000 degree candidates today (9,500 full-time
equivalents). But now as then, the school is a predominantly
female institution. Almost two thirds of the students are
women. Many are working mothers with tight schedules
who depend on a complex web of family relationships for
childcare and financial support. Mellow says the school lost
700 registrants in the wake of September 11, largely because
the family members who had provided or paid for childcare
were no longer able to do so.
Writing—everybody’s problem
Saha was relaxing at midday with Bill Mazza, his former
tutor at LaGuardia’s writing center, which is at the heart
of the school’s remediation program. For most non-native
speakers of English—and for many others who simply are
not ready to do college work upon leaving the New York City
public schools, the center is the key to survival at LaGuardia.
Students who can follow a lecture, read a textbook and
participate in a class discussion cannot necessarily write a
paper or pass a written exam.
About half of the student body takes at least one of the
remedial English courses. All of them convene for a one-
hour writing lab in addition to regular class meetings every
week. Some 3,500 other students show up for tutorials every
year. Any teacher in any course on campus can suggest that
a student attend the writing center. Writing and remediation
are not among the sexiest programs at the community
college, but everyone fromGail Mellow on down brings
up the writing center within the first few minutes of
conversation. And why not? Two thirds of LaGuardia’s
students are foreign born. If the school wants to maintain
or increase enrollment, it must teach students to write in
English.
“I get excited when people learn to write a simple, fairly
well argued essay,” said Bert Eisenstadt, a senior staffer at the
center, whose credits include writing at
Soap Opera Digest
and teaching autistic people. “The first step is the biggest. I
get an enormous kick out of being responsible for that step.”
Tutors like Mazza, who typically make significant
progress toward a graduate degree before they are offered
a job, start at $10 per hour. The hourly rate doesn’t climb
beyond $12, according to Eisenstadt, who says he loses
tutors constantly because they become classroom teachers
for higher pay. “You don’t do it for the money,” said Mazza,
who, true to form, is angling for an adjunct faculty position
in English.
Most students meet their tutors in a warren of tiny
cubicles with four or five chairs around the table. The
furniture points up the biggest problem LaGuardia’s writing
teachers face. “Teaching writing is all about relationships,”
Eisenstadt said. “One-to-one teaching works the best. You
can still accomplish many of the same goals in a two-to-one
setting. But three-to-one is too much like a small group.”
“Fluency does not proceed in a straight line,” said Sandra
Hanson, chair of the English department, and inhabitant of
the most arresting office on campus. (Posters of Elvis Presley
share wall space with advertisements for John Deere tractors
and an aerial photo of her family’s farm in Iowa. Framed
Norwegian American embroidery complements a collection
of African dolls.) “You can’t assume that a student who
finished ESL 099 last fall with a good
300-word essay will succeed in remedial
English. They could stay on the same
level for a while without the writing
center and other supports.”
Even at the depressed tutor wages,
there simply isn’t enough money at
LaGuardia to teach writing one-on-
one. There is no formula for creating
productive groups. In general, group
teaching slows progress, Eisenstadt
says, which in turn feeds the political
objections to community college
education. New York City has decreased
its share of community college funding,
even during the boom years of Rudolph Giuliani’s mayoralty,
with the argument that too few students graduate on
time. “One percent of our students graduate on time,”
The LaGuardia campus is located in three former factory buildings in the New York
City borough of Queens.
LaGuardia has grown
by expanding adult
and continuing
education from
19,000 enrollments
in 1996 to more than
28,000 in 2000.