Learning Communities for Basic Skills Success


Low rates of success among basic skills students continue to be a source of frustration at most community colleges. In terms of retention (drop-out rates) and persistence (rates at which students enroll in the following semester), community college students who take basic skills courses do not fare well. According to reports recently published by the Chancellor's Office in The Fact Book (March 1999), just under 25 percent of students who enrolled in a basic skills course during 1995-96 showed improvement by 1998, improvement being defined as successful completion of a higher level course in the same discipline area. This information is particularly vexing when we note that at least fifty per cent of our entering students are found to need basic skills instruction, according to the basic skills survey completed by the Academic Senate last year.

Undoubtedly, we must look at these numbers carefully before jumping to the conclusion that California's community college basic skills instruction fails its students. As Alexander W. Astin of UCLA has pointed out, a simple retention rate tells us more about how many severely under-prepared students an institution admits than it does about how well we design our programs and help our students learn (Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 1993). Nevertheless, some colleges have developed basic skills programs that have shown remarkable results in terms of raising retention and persistence rates, as well as eliciting expressions of student and faculty satisfaction, which remain respectable measures of success to most of us.

One such program was presented at the Basic Skills breakout at the Academic Senate's Spring Session in San Francisco in April. This exemplary program features a learning community approach.

San Jose City College's Gateway/Student Support Services provides underrepresented and under-prepared basic skills students with an integrated approach to math and English as well as counseling services. Charles Hunter, the program's developer and coordinator, explained that the program began in 1992 to strengthen basic skills instruction at San Jose City College. In 1993 the State Chancellor's Office designated this new program as the State model for retention, and provided a three-year grant for the program to continue and further develop. In 1996, San Jose City College applied for and received a Federal grant to expand the program from serving 80 students annually to serving 200. This grant has been extended for four more years and receives from the grant $194,000 annually.

With this funding, and a continuing commitment from the college, Hunter and his colleagues designed a program that provides self-identified underrepresented and under-prepared students with basic language, mathematics, and college readiness skills, including enhanced self-esteem and computer literacy. Students move to college-level courses according to a structured sequence. The success of the program results from the support of a variety of professionals working in a well integrated manner. The key features include block scheduling, in-class tutors, a designated academic and personal counselor, faculty who volunteer to teach in the program, a program aide, a guidance class, social get-togethers and cultural activities, regular review and changes to students' educational plans, and a monthly newsletter for the students in the program. Students in the program experience a strong sense of community and with that feeling comes mutual support. Support also takes the form of phone calls from peers to students with attendance irregularities or academic difficulties, study groups, motivational and informational speakers, in-class note takers, and E-mail correspondences with instructors.

Most of the elements in the San Jose City College program have been successful in other colleges. Puente programs develop a sense of community in much the same way as the Gateway program - with similarly impressive results. What it takes to establish such a program is clear enough: a faculty dedicated to student learning and eager to focus on the problems of underrepresented, under-prepared students; institutional support for innovative programs designed for basic skills students; and funding sufficient for establishing effective programs.

We have an abundance of dedicated, well-prepared faculty eager to help basic skills students succeed in greater numbers. Most of our institutions support our efforts to increase student success as their primary mission (according to their respective mission statements). But we must push harder for the necessary funding to establish learning community programs such as San Jose City College's Gateway program on more of our campuses. It is important for State and Federal grants to pay for the development of model programs. It also seems reasonable that when these programs have proven successful, State and Federal funds should be provided so that successful model programs are replicated. Otherwise there is little to gain from the models.