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City College Math, Science Majors Get Head Start At Summer Academy

Evening Edition

Above: San Diego County’s community college students start their fall semesters today. KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert tells us about a program that’s designed to help new students start their college careers off on the right foot.

— The week before classes started at San Diego City College, about 20 students were huddled up close to the front of a classroom in the school's new math and science building. Most of the students were going to start their first college classes in just a few days.

Aired 8/19/13 on KPBS News.

Summer bridging programs are one way community colleges are trying to help students be more successful.

Justino Guerrero, 23, walks two new City College students through steps to make understanding and completing homework assignments easier during San Diego City College's three-day STEM Success Academy, Aug. 14, 2013.

Unlike the others, Bonjovi Brown had already been at City College for a full semester.

But half way through this three-day program called the STEM Success Academy, the 25-year-old was starting to have a new perspective on his approach to school up to this point.

“It gives me steps to prepare myself because I was one of the students walking into class blind," he said, "with no preparation, no prior plan, expecting the teacher to just tell me what I need to know and follow the book.”

The academy is run by Rafael Alvarez, director of the MESA Program at City College.

MESA supports minority or disadvantaged students who are studying math, science and engineering. According to the Community College Scorecards released by California's community college system this year, about 60 percent of students who start at City College intends to get a degree or to transfer to a four-year college do. The numbers are lower in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, concentrations. Alvarez believes one of the reason for that is that there are too many like Brown who don’t know there’s help available from day one.

“There’s an expectation of them that they know to approach the learning when they start," Alvarez said. "Not a week, two weeks after the semester starts. Sometimes they don’t even find us until midway through the semester and at that point, we’re trying to do a lot of damage control.”

That’s why Alvarez got the summer academy started: to introduce students to what he calls the MESA Learning Culture before they walk into their first college class. As the state's community colleges focus on improving graduation and retention rates, some are trying or growing summer bridging programs like this one.

To get invited to this academy students already had to be a step ahead of many of their new classmate. They had to place out of remedial math and English classes.

But even for 17-year-old Marissa Maldonado, who took AP classes as a high school senior, strategies like spending no more than 20 minutes stuck on a test problem were a revelation.

“In calculus, I struggled so much because I thought that I knew what I was doing," she said. "So, I’d stick and I’d try like everything. And I didn’t know what to do and I’d stick and be like ‘I got this, I got this.’ Did I take the 20 minutes and stop? No, I kept going. And I did really bad on the tests.”

Some research shows that students like Maldonado and the others at the STEM academy complete more classes and are less likely to drop out for at least a year after their summer introduction to college. Whether those gains continue past that first year is not as clear.

But Justino Guerrero said the studying strategies and time management skills the students are learning in these three days changed his college experience. He went from struggling and feeling overwhelmed to being a student mentor at this year’s academy.

“It’s been easier for me to approach professors and talk about anything I don’t understand" Guerrero said. "And, I actually apply every single concept from MESA when I study, when I do homework, when I’m taking tests and it actually made me succeed in my classes.”

That success is something Alvarez doesn’t want to students to take for granted.

Once Alvarez finished a lecture about an approach to homework problem sets he has dubbed "the Big Picture Approach to Problem Solving," he asked the student mentors for final thoughts. Guerrero admonished the new students to use the approach, which includes identifying all of the steps needed to solve a problem before starting it, even when the homework seems simple and straight forward. That way, he said, they'd be in the habit of using it when they got to harder work where it would make a real difference.

"Justino is exactly right," Alvarez said. "Be careful you don't think you've found a shortcut, that you think 'this takes Justino an hour. I can do it in 15 minutes and get to the party on time, right?' Um, wrong."

Looking for shortcuts has consequences, Alvarez told the students. He cited disheartening numbers: half of students fail intermediate algebra, 60 percent fail trigonometry.

Shaky academic footing is just one of the challenges the students Alvarez works with face. He pointed to financial concerns and family responsibilities as other factors he's seen derail community college career.

“What we’re trying to do is to empower them and help them be successful in the academic area, hopefully to overcome those other challenges they have in their personal lives as well," he said.

Before the second day of the academy is over, the students are talking and joking like old friends. Marissa Maldonado's feelings about starting college were already changing.

“I was completely nervous. Actually, I’m saying 'was' because now it makes a big difference because I’m prepared and I feel like going into my first class, I’ll be a model for those around me,” she said.

Alvarez wants to grow the summer academy to plant more models for student success on the campus.

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