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New Santa Monica College Academy Preps Students for Success

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By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

September 24, 2015 -- More than 90 percent of incoming students who enrolled in Santa Monica College's first pre-college summer English program passed, improving their chances of grasping college-level English, officials said.

Failing college English is a big reason why U.S. dropout rates among low-income and minority students are the highest in the industrial world, and also why SMC moved to offer the new English Academy for English-learning freshmen for the first time over the summer, college officials said.

Of 164 students who enrolled, 91 percent passed directly to English 1, said SMC spokeswoman Grace Smith.

English 1 is required for an associate of arts degree, but students must demonstrate proficiency in research-oriented reading and writing, Smith said. Many English-learning freshman need to take remedial English classes before they're ready to tackle English 1.

However, a Community Colleges Research Center study found that only 46 percent of students referred to pre-college English courses complete the entire developmental sequence. More than half drop out and never return, the 2009 study found.

Many of those students face financial and other obstacles that sometimes sidetrack their educations, said SMC English professor Eleni Hioureas.

“Most students who place into my basic skills, or pre-college level, English class have overcome difficult circumstances to persists-- far more than the typical college student,” Hioureas said.

“A lot of things can happen in a semester to keep them from coming back-- financial and health setbacks, things that may confirm a wrong impression that they cannot succeed,” she said. “The English Academy is a big deal because it challenges them toward success, saves time and money, and fast-tracks them to transfer.”

To pay for the program, SMC used more than $1 million the college received last year from a special $69.5 million “student equity” fund earmarked for the state's community colleges in 2014-15.

The academy program compacted up to two semesters of fundamental college writing instruction into two weeks during a rigorous “bootcamp,” Smith said. Student attended 10 three-hour workshops as part of the curriculum, which was developed by a dozen SMC professors, she said.

Although the academy is intense, students who enrolled in and passed the course avoided having to take at least one pre-college level class, also known as “gatekeeper” courses, Smith said.

Last year, Excelencia in Education, a non-profit information source on the status of Latino educational achievement, reported that just 15 percent of the Latinos in the state completed their associate of arts degrees in 2010-11. High numbers of students referred to college developmental English classes through placement exams are English-learning Latinos, the report said.

“The program definitely keeps you from falling into the equity gap,” said SMC student Stephanie Santos-Cruz, who finished the summer English Academy in August.

Santos Cruz said that after taking the program, she has gained the confidence and experience needed to write research papers.

“If I was able to do a research paper in two weeks, without a full semester of instruction, I know I can definitely do it now that I’m in English 1,” she said.

Before completing the academy, SMC freshman Chris Guidos felt too intimidated to take part in discussions in English class, he said.

“I learned to speak up,” said Guidos, who commutes from South Los Angeles. “I don't feel as pressured or intimidated anymore.”

The academy’s 10 three-hour workshops have paid off, said SMC English Professor Gordon Dossett, co-faculty leader for the program.

“We were very deliberate about choosing the intensive approach,” Dossett said. “The students were able to focus exclusively on this. And we used peers as writing assistants, a model that’s proven effective.”

Santa Monica College also offers a sociology and history-coaching program; a learning library for low-income Early Childhood Education students; tutoring and outreach for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) students; and chemistry and math boot camps, also for STEM students.

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