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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Arithmetic to algebra in a semester

CUNY Start student Kyle Lambert, 19, writes a math equation while teacher, Erica Fells left, looks on. Photo: Jessica Lehrman/New York Times

 Remedial math is the Bermuda triangle of community colleges. Many enter. Few go on to pass a college-level math class.

City University of New York’s community colleges have developed a catch-up class that prepares a majority of students for college in one semester, writes David Kirp, a Berkeley professor public policy, in the New York Times.  CUNY START, which includes “good teaching and I-have-your-back counseling,” could end the curse of remedial math, he believes.

Can you simplify this square root?” Erica Fells asks her class, and hands wave in the air. All but one of the students believe that it’s impossible to do so. The dissenter, Leslie Alcantara, lays out her argument. “What do the rest of you think of Leslie’s reasoning?” Ms. Fells asks, and after some back-and-forth, they agree — she’s correct. . . . At the start of the term last fall, Ms. Fells told me, many of the students couldn’t handle negative numbers and decimal points. Ten weeks later, they have powered through arithmetic to algebra and are ready for college math.

More than two-thirds of community college students must take remedial math, English or both, writes Kirp. “Only a third of those referred to remedial math, and less than half those who take remedial reading, pass.”

The CUNY Start model is very, very intensive. “Full-time students are exclusively in Start classes for 25 hours a week — substantially more than the usual course load — for one semester,” writes Kirp.

“I teach them how to investigate problems — how to think,” said Fells. “The first sentence on the first day is a question. We start by making a connection to real life and slowly build a foundation of knowledge for more abstract algebraic problems.”

Trying to connect math to “real life” isn’t a new strategy. What’s new is requiring 25 hours a week of remediation. If weak skills are standing between a student and the future, that’s a sound investment. START also has a reading and writing program.

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