Higher Ed’s Bermuda Triangle
Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.
by Camille Esch
Treating children that way is like giving a lion their food without making them hunt for it.
Jacinth Thomas-Val writes the sentence on the blackboard in her classroom at Sacramento City College, then asks her students what’s wrong with it. “What does ‘them’ refer to in this sentence?” she asks one young woman. The young woman doesn’t know, shakes her head, then gets up and leaves the classroom without explanation, not returning for the rest of the period.
More times than she can remember, Thomas-Val has explained that pronouns need to match the word or phrase to which they refer. But the students in English-Writing 40, the lowest-level writing class that her community college offers, make these same basic mistakes week after week. Thomas-Val presses on, erasing “a lion” and changing it to “lions.”One young woman in the front row—clearly the eager, outspoken type—starts to get it, and asks how to fix a similar sentence in the essay she’s just gotten back. But as Thomas-Val tries to explain, the back of the class dissolves into hushed talking and texting. Thomas-Val gently pulls them back to attention, but by the time she does, she needs to get the students started on their next essay assignment, a task that will consume the rest of the eighty-minute class. So she moves on.
Sacramento City is a typical California community college: its students are primarily minority, low income, and go to school part-time. Eighty-five percent of them arrive needing what are called remediation classes, courses like Thomas-Val’s English-Writing 40. Remediation classes are designed to bring students up to the level needed to get started on the college’s actual curriculum, to close the growing gap between what students have to know at the outset of college and what they learn in California’s crumbling high school system—or, for older students, basic skills they may have once had but have lost in their years out of school.
This willingness to offer opportunities and second chances to disadvantaged students, opportunities that aren’t available in many other countries, is what first appealed to Thomas-Val—herself an immigrant from Antigua—about American community colleges. But in her decades of teaching, she has been shocked at just how unprepared most of her students are, how little they know—and how hard it is to help them. “It’s unbelievable, just totally unbelievable,” she says. Of their writing, she says, “It’s filled with all kinds of sentence-level errors. Not knowing how to join sentences or where sentence boundaries are. Capitalization problems. Stuff like that that you learned in grade school, or should have.” Faced with these circumstances, Thomas-Val has adjusted her own expectations. “Let’s say I have fifty students this semester,” she says, “and five of them do exceedingly well. I am so grateful for the five. [For] the other forty-five, yes, my heart breaks, but I think, ‘Oh, I’ve got five!’ ”