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One innovation cuts down on remedial courses in college

A group of students walks across the campus

A group of students walks across the campus of Suffolk County Community College in Selden on Apr. 18, 2014. Credit: Heather Walsh

Education reformers throw out a frightening statistic to buttress claims that schools need to improve: 40 percent of high school graduates must take remedial courses in college, and at community colleges, that number rises to 62 percent. These high school graduates can't read, write or do math well enough, so they have to repeat high school work -- at college tuition prices.

I've always taken that statistic to mean that schools from kindergarten through 12th grade are giving up on kids by letting them graduate without learning. And to some extent, that's true. But a handful of faculty members from the Hampton Bays school district and Suffolk County Community College have discovered some surprisingly simple solutions.

And it all started five years ago with a backyard and a tray of salmon.

Denise Lindsay Sullivan was the one with the tray, which she was passing around at the Holbrook home of her father, the late Bill Lindsay. As the Suffolk County Legislature's presiding officer, he had invited a group that included Suffolk president Shaun McKay. McKay knew that Sullivan was an administrator at Hampton Bays, so as he helped himself to an appetizer, he asked why high school students don't come to college ready to do math.

Here are some answers. Senioritis; many students don't take math in their senior year. Forgetfulness; students take pre-algebra and algebra in eighth or ninth grade, so by the time they see it on college placement tests, they no longer remember it. Calculators; the placement tests don't allow the use of calculators, and kids' mental math has atrophied.

I'm so in awe of what happened next.

Sullivan, Hampton Bays' assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, spoke with Theodore Koukounas, academic chairman of Suffolk's Riverhead campus and a math professor. They looked at what high school graduates needed to know. Then Sullivan put all of the seniors at Hampton Bays High School back into math class unless they had either a 510 in math on the SAT or an 85 percent on the algebra II/trigonometry Regents exam. "That didn't go over well," Sullivan said. "Students complained and had their parents calling."

But many of them had two study halls a day and could easily fit in an extra class, which Hampton Bays arranged as a lab. Sullivan cobbled together resources, bought software and found a way to keep the cost at $35 a student. In 2010-11, 68 percent of Hampton Bays graduates attending SCCC had to take remedial math. By the 2013-14 school year, the district reports that number had been reduced to 26 percent.

In addition, about one-third of Hampton Bays graduates were required to take remedial English at SCCC. So, the high school integrated remedial writing into English classes. Students now prepare a portfolio of work to show readiness for college English.

Jeff Pedersen, a vice president at SCCC, said the changes give students a psychological boost. "When you're 18 years old, to have to take reading can be very demoralizing," he said. College students are more likely to complete a two-year degree when they skip remedial classes.

High schools have been put in a difficult spot, Pedersen said, with a larger percentage of students attending college and the pressure to make them "college ready" -- a standard for which there's not a universal definition. As the Hampton Bays-SCCC experience shows, it can be a matter of college and high school teachers talking. At least 12 other districts are conferring with SCCC now.

As political leaders raise the idea of tuition-free community college, the people I spoke with suggested instead a grant program for high schools. "If I had the staff," Sullivan said, "we could get these remediation numbers even lower."

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.