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When Chris Foy graduated from Mills University Studies High School in the Pulaski County Special School District this spring, he wasn't particularly interested in going to college. He has a good head for math and as a self-described "game nerd," he knows his way around technology, but he kept falling asleep in class. Then there was writing, a subject Foy hated. His ACT score indicated he'd have to take remedial composition as a freshman. Paying an extra $2,000 for the privilege of sitting through a rerun of high school English? It seemed unappealing, to say the least.
At a luncheon for a small group of entering freshmen on the UALR campus recently, Foy spoke to the Times with a polite, quiet zeal about the change that happened over the summer. "I didn't apply myself in high school," he said, semi-apologetically. "But now I've got my priorities right." He'll enter the university as a full-time student in two weeks, and not only has he now tested out of that dreaded remedial comp class, he's also boosted his score on the math entrance exam so substantially that he can leapfrog over College Algebra (the typical ground floor math course) and go directly into Trigonometry.
Foy spent most of July living in the UALR dorms with 57 other recent graduates from PCSSD high schools in a new program called the Charles W. Donaldson Scholars Academy, named for UALR's recently retired vice-chancellor of student services. All were kids whose ACT scores would have forced them to take at least one remedial class, in math, comp or reading. That's if they entered college in the fall at all, which many of them weren't necessarily planning on doing. Most, like Foy, were African American, and almost all come from lower-income backgrounds.
After three marathon weeks of 12-hour instructional days with campus faculty and UALR student coaches, all 58 of the Donaldson Scholars Academy students are now planning on attending college at UALR or another school. Over half of the students who needed remedial math or developmental reading at the beginning of the program successfully tested out of those courses by summer's end, and 60 percent bypassed remedial composition. Six students needing math, comp and reading remediation tested out of all three.
Such rapid gains require close scrutiny, but they are cause for excitement among educators searching for solutions to close the achievement gap between black and white students.
Despite decades of litigation and over a billion dollars in payments from the state to PCSSD and the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts to remedy persistent racial disparities in the educational opportunities Central Arkansas offers its children, African American students are still less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to attend college and more likely to require remediation of core courses should they make it to a postsecondary institution. In January, a settlement in the convoluted desegregation suit was finally agreed upon, which will end Arkansas's payments to the three Pulaski County districts in three years.
The deseg money will soon be gone, but the achievement gap remains nearly as wide as it was 30 years ago. In the eyes of John Walker, the veteran attorney representing the black families who brought the lawsuit, the settlement was hardly a victory for minority students. "The only thing that's been achieved here is that the laws are gone," he said in January. Walker's grudging endorsement of the settlement was a matter of pragmatism: He knew the suit would likely soon be ended by order of presiding federal Judge Price Marshall if a negotiation wasn't achieved.
The creation of the Scholars Academy is similarly pragmatic. The program is the product of a plan created by Walker in partnership with PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess, who was appointed to head the district following a state takeover in 2011. Judge Marshall approved the plan in June, paving the way for this year's summer remediation camp.
"My notion was [the K-12 schools] hadn't taught these kids," Walker said. "The best thing they could do for them would be to at least find a way to increase their options outside the [school] system ... so it began as an effort to find a way to make up for the education lost by inattention to the needs of minority students."
PCSSD will end or scale back several programs it has previously funded with the deseg money and instead direct $10 million over the next three years into a fund to help students graduating from the district attend UALR or Philander Smith. The immersive, three-week summer experience is only one component of the Scholars Academy; students will also receive mentoring and support after they enroll in college and will be eligible for a $2,500 scholarship renewable for four years. Perhaps most importantly, in the coming 2014-15 school year, the program will begin targeting ninth-graders in PCSSD schools, pairing them with mentors from the university, educating them about career options, and nudging them into an abbreviated summer program at UALR to spark an early interest in college.
Although this year's summer cohort was small due to the rushed time frame (Marshall approved the academy's plan only two months ago), Walker said he hoped that at least 4,000 students would participate over the next five years.
"My opinion is, it's spot on," Guess said. "The most powerful part of this program for me is the awakening of kids when they're still in high school.
"I've spoken to my secondary principals, and they've spoken to their counselors. There's a great sense of excitement about it. I haven't seen many efforts that have generated this much enthusiasm."
The optimism is at least partly backed by experience and data. The Donaldson Scholars Academy is modeled on a pilot program launched by UALR in 2013 called the Summer Bridge Academy, the brainchild of vice-chancellor Donaldson himself. Last summer, UALR invited its incoming freshmen who needed math remediation to attend a free immersion course (funded in part by aid from several charitable foundations). It drew 43 participants from around the state. Remarkably, every student in 2013 tested out of at least one remedial course by summer's end.
"Ninety-five percent of them had bypassed remedial math by the end of the program. Seventy-five percent of them bypassed English," said UALR's Brad Patterson, who oversees data collection for the program.
Remediation is a necessity for students who enter college behind — but it's also a good predictor of who succeeds in college and who drops out. For UALR, which has among the lowest year-to-year retention rates of Arkansas's public universities, a program that helps students who are academically behind is a program that helps the school.
"Across every institution in the state and the country, students who require remediation are much less likely to succeed in college," Patterson said. "Students who need all three — math, reading and writing — have less than a 10 percent chance of graduating in four years."
One way to explain away the success of the Scholars Academy is that the students spent three weeks learning how to take a test rather than genuinely absorbing the material. But data from fall classes shows that the gains didn't evaporate.
"We found that the success rates of the 2013 Summer Bridge cohort was equivalent to that of students who weren't prescribed remedial classes," said Amber Smith, who directs both Summer Bridge and the UALR component of the Donaldson Scholars Academy. "They also had a 10 percent higher retention rate from the fall semester to the spring semester than other students. Attorney Walker saw that data, and that's what led to the Scholars Academy this summer."
Smith said the Summer Bridge students performed better than the Donaldson Scholars Academy students this summer because they'd already been admitted into UALR. In contrast, "the Scholars Academy kids are not filtered at all," she said. "They weren't college-admitted."
Both programs' successes, Smith said, are the result of tremendously hard work on the part of quality educators who know their stuff and are given the resources they need to be effective. Chane Morrow, who teaches math at the program and also mentors UALR freshmen throughout the school year, emphasized the importance of tailoring instruction to individual student needs.
"We use all different methods — small group, lecture, computer-based instruction, manipulatives, one-on-one tutoring," Morrow said. "We test throughout the summer. Out of each test, we refine our approach — which students should go where, which need heavy help." (Though more commonly known around town as the rapper Epiphany, Morrow obtained a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Stanford before launching his music career.)
That requires plenty of staff. For every four or five students, there's either a faculty member or a UALR student coach. The high ratio also creates a sense of support and community, which instructors said is crucial to infusing students with an understanding that their life goals are obtainable with sufficient work, and that their academic deficiencies are just that — gaps in knowledge, not gaps in character or inherent ability.
"These students are probably working harder than they've ever been asked to work in their lives," said Sherry Rankins Robinson, the program's director of composition and the chair of UALR's writing department. "They're asked to do three major writing projects in this three-week program. They're producing texts they'd produce on a college level."
Indeed, on the last week of the summer program, the sense of accomplishment among Scholars Academy students was palpable. Some of the program's academic coaches are rising UALR sophomores who participated in last year's pilot Summer Bridge Academy program and can testify to its success. One such coach is Laura Montalvan, a graphic design major from Hope who was one of the 43 students in last year's summer cohort. The first person in her family to go to college, Montalvan has no doubt that the Summer Bridge Academy made the difference between success and failure during a difficult freshman year.
"That's why I'm in college now," she said. "I had to leave my family to come to UALR, but I have a new family here."
It remains to be seen how the Scholars Academy will perform when it's scaled up next summer. Walker estimates some 400 to 500 PCSSD students will be eligible to attend the immersion course. Can the program replicate its gains with a community of students that could be nearly 10 times as large?
Even then, a three-week program can't fully compensate for deficiencies in the K-12 system, Walker said. He sees the Scholars Academy as a crucial safety net, not as a panacea.
"The point is to motivate and stimulate these students — to cause them to want more and to do better despite the failures of the system," Walker said. He sees those failures as self-evident, a result of both continued bias and the inherent disadvantages faced by kids from poorer households. Providing early childhood education and reforming the school disciplinary system are necessary next steps, he said.
But Chris Foy, the student from Mills, considers himself fortunate to have received the high school education he did.
"I was really lucky to go to Mills and Fuller [Middle School], because this summer I've tutored people who have slipped through the cracks. Maybe they had bad teachers." He recounted a story from this summer about helping a fellow Scholars Academy student who was struggling to solve an algebra problem. It was only when he told his classmate to puzzle through the math without using her calculator that Foy realized his classmate had never learned her multiplication tables. "This girl didn't know six times seven," he said, looking troubled. "That impacted me hard."
Funding for special education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
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