CRYSTAL LAKE – The test was definitely a challenge for Mallory Wlasiuk.
The McHenry West High School grad hadn’t taken a math class her senior year – most of the year was taken up by a work study program, in which she built a bright pink truck with her dad – and so the placement test at McHenry County College was something of a shock.
She wasn’t that surprised by the results, though.
“I’m not a math whiz,” said Wlasiuk, who hopes to take her marketing and advertising education to the Gary Lang car dealership where she has worked for the past three years.
She was placed – like many other community college students – in a developmental math class, one that refreshes what she was supposed to learn in high school so that she can move into credit-earning college-level courses.
Nearly 70 percent of community college students nationwide take at least one remedial class, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. Another 40 percent of students at public four-year colleges need to take one of these courses.
But while developmental courses are extremely common – MCC offers 44 sections of developmental math compared to 43 sections of credit-earning, college level math – many students aren’t moving from those classes to getting a degree.
Only 28 percent of community college students who take a developmental education course go on to earn a degree within eight years compared to 43 percent of students who don’t have to take these courses, according to the Community College Research Center’s 2014 report.
While McHenry County College doesn’t have the stats on how successful its students are, it hopes to soon, said Adriane Hutchinson who started as MCC’s dean of academic development two years ago.
A few years before, a new administration charged staff with restructuring student affairs and realigning the departments that provide support services, disability services and service learning opportunities, she said. Around the same time, the college switched its database management system and issues with the conversion has meant that all data has to be strongly vetted before it can be used.
That means the college doesn’t have concrete statistics on whether the programs it has implemented are working, but anecdotally, the news appears positive.
Emily Roller, an 18-year-old Huntley High School grad in her first year at MCC, said the teachers really take the time to meet with students and the college provides plenty of tutoring opportunities at the Sage Learning Center. Because she has special needs, she also receives free one-on-one tutoring.
The college also has begun offering an eight-week format for the developmental classes, so that students can get through both elementary and intermediate in one semester instead of two, Hutchinson said.
An alternative also exists for students with learning disabilities who might need more time to get through the curriculum, she said. That option allows students to take a course over a year like they would in high school.
Staff members also are looking into providing other alternatives, said Gabriel Decio, an English instructor, adding that he’d like to integrate reading and writing into one course and to explore adaptive learning where students would do more work outside of the class and only meet once a week, something that work better for working students.
“We’re trying to lower the barriers but our standards are high,” he said.
In January 2013, MCC also added Connect2 to its offerings.
The program is targeted at students who need both developmental English and math, Hutchinson said. The course provides even more opportunities for student-faculty communication, including office hours in the cafeteria.
It also builds in counseling and study time, according to a report on the program.
Of the 14 students who took the program last fall, 93 percent of them continued on at MCC in the spring compared to 85 percent of students who were in both developmental English and math but not the Connect2 program, according to the report.
The Connect2 program also had a higher percentage of students passing the class, 93 percent versus 72 percent, the report said.
Pilot programs typically need to operate three to five years before their success can be evaluated, Hutchinson said.
“Now in education, data is everything,” she said. “The buzz word is data-driven planning.”
But the success rates in these classes are still lower than the general population’s, and that can be frustrating to teachers.
That’s a refrain Decio hears a lot at conferences.
“The challenge of teaching that class [is that] the first part of the course, you spend more energy making the students feel comfortable and reassuring the student that they can do it, that they can do it well because they can get very easily discouraged,” he said. “They fail to see their potential. They might not be able to see that they have what it takes to succeed.”