Everything changed for Christina Urbina in an eighth-grade algebra class.
Up until then, she’d been an Honor Roll student whose high grades earned her special privileges, like going on field trips and listening to guest speakers with older students.
In eighth grade, however, she found herself completely lost in math, with a teacher she says couldn’t help her find her way.
“It was completely downhill from there,” said Urbina, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade. “I do point to that algebra class as a turning point for me. I didn’t understand, and I didn’t know where to go for help.”
Today, however, Urbina is president of Polk State Winter Haven’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society of two-year colleges, and has a 3.76 grade-point average. She’s even earned a handful of A’s and B’s in math classes.
The difference between then and now, she said, is three semesters of remedial math that she took upon enrolling at Polk State College.
“Today, I understand math, and I understand why it matters in everyday life. It’s given me a lot of confidence to get past that obstacle,” she said.
Stories like Urbina’s abound at Polk State College and are shaping its approach to the new environment created by Senate Bill 1720, which restructures remedial — also called developmental — instruction.
The bill, Polk State’s administration says, presents both opportunities and challenges. Yes, it gives colleges greater flexibility inoffering academic assistance to the students who need it most, but it also gives students the ability to forgo that help — setting them up for what could be a more difficult road to a degree.
When students do need — and opt to take — remedial education, the bill calls for tailored help that will also allow them to earn college credit. Currently, students don’t earn college credit for remedial courses; Urbina, for instance, completed three semesters of developmental math before earning her first college credits in the subject.
Polk State Vice President for Academic and Student Services Kenneth Ross said an upside of the bill is that it gives colleges more leeway in assisting students who need remediation. At Polk State, in 2012-13, the number of students who required developmental education accounted for 8 percent of full-time-equivalent enrollment, a number that has shown slight decreases year-to-year.
“The bill will allow us more flexibility beyond offering your standard semester-long remedial courses. We can explore and implement alternative strategies to help our students,” he said.
For instance, in fall 2012, Polk State College began a pilot program for students who tested into developmental courses by close margins, missing college-level readiness by just four points on the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT).
Through the College’s pilot program — in which students participate voluntarily — students take five weeks of developmental education. Those who earn a grade of C or better then move into college-level coursework for the next 10 weeks. Thus, during the course of a single semester, students catch up and move on, earning credits that count toward their degrees.
In the first two semesters, approximately 90 percent of participants successfully passed developmental math, reading and writing.
With developmental courses out of the way, the students moved immediately into Intermediate Algebra and English Composition I, completing coursework toward their degrees.
Ross said the possibilities for offering more tailoreddevelopmental education are endless, and under SB 1720, colleges are now free to explore and implement new programs.
Polk State, for instance, will continue to refine its five-week developmental courses. Another possibility on a statewide level, he said, is that developmental education could be delivered online.
Polk State College will also refer students who could benefit from developmental education to on-campus tutoring services through its Teaching/Learning Computing Centers. Tutoring is available for free to all Polk State students in a variety of subjects.
Ross said while the strategies Polk State will take inhelping students who need remedial education will vary, they will all be based in one simple fact: plenty of students need help along the way, and that’s what the College is here to provide.
“There is nothing wrong with needing extra help, and that’s why Polk State is here — to help students reach their goals, no matter what difficulties they may face. The difference now is that students will have to seek some of that help out on their own instead of it being required. The College will express to its students that there is no stigma attached to remedial classes or tutoring. In the end, it’s about earning a degree, not the path that gets you there,” he said.
However, the bill also presents new challenges to colleges.
Under SB 1720, Florida College System institutions — including Polk State — may no longer require students to take remedial courses, even if placement testing shows that they need the help. Instead, colleges may only advise students that they may benefit from developmental courses.
Furthermore, under the bill, members of the military and students who began at a Florida public high school in 2003-2004 or later and earned a standard diploma are exempt from placement testing. If those students do opt to take a placement test and show a need for remediation, the colleges can’t require that remediation.
For one, Ross said, since students are no longer required to take developmental courses, their educational success will depend in part on them admitting their own weaknesses.
“I can see this being a bigger problem with reading. For instance, if a student is struggling with history because he or she can’t read the textbook, I don’t think that student is as likely to go back and take developmental reading. Reading is a core competency that impacts how students perform in all other subjects,” he said.
Ross said he could envision a number of scenarios for students who need help in math or reading but bypass developmental classes as allowed under SB 1720.
Some, through hard work and tutoring, will catch up and earn a degree. Others may fail a class and have to repeat it again the next semester. Or, worst case, students could simply give up, writing off subjects like math or reading as obstacles they can’t overcome.
Polk State, he said, is doing what it has always done: working to make sure there are more stories like Urbina’s.
“We’re working on improving student success even as we implement SB 1720, so that our students can get the degrees that move them on to higher levels of education or position them to be competitive in the workforce. Student success is always at the center of everything we do,” he said.