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Rethinking remediation 

Bella Vista Republican’s education idea ignites controversy.

click to enlarge NOT OFFENDED: UAPB Chancellor Lawrence Davis welcomes discussion on remediation.
  • NOT OFFENDED: UAPB Chancellor Lawrence Davis welcomes discussion on remediation.

Black students at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff do not exist just to play football, says UAPB National Alumni Association president Samuel Staples. They're at the school to receive an education.

Staples and other members of his organization were incensed over statements state Republican Rep. Donna Hutchinson of Bella Vista made in a recent Arkansas Times article in which the lawmaker suggested funding Arkansas universities with high remediation rates as community colleges and removing remediation courses from all public four-year institutions within 10 years [See Doug Smith, “Real colleges teach real courses,” July 17].  Hutchinson noted in the interview that UAPB could keep its football team as a two-year college.

“We have many, many outstanding graduates who received remediation and have gone on to be outstanding citizens,” himself included, says Staples, a native Arkansan now living in Los Angeles.

Hutchinson, too, received a flurry of angry e-mails from students and faculty at the mostly black institution, as well as several invitations to appear on radio talk shows. One “furious” female UAPB graduate characterized Hutchinson's remarks as racist, charging in a stinging e-mail, “Your ignorance and insinuation of UAPB being mainly concerned with football is an utter ‘slap in the face' for all students and alumni. I am not nor have I ever been a football player, but what I am, is a scholar.”

Hutchinson maintains that her statements were taken out of context, saying the fact that a “reporter narrowed his article to UAPB has nothing to do with me. He gathered the stats and decided to go after UAPB — not me.” She adds that as a member of Montana's Blackfoot Indian tribe, she empathizes with “struggling communities.”

(Smith said that Hutchinson's remarks were not taken out of context, the article did not deal only with UAPB, and he did not decide to “go after” UAPB. “Representative Hutchinson got a stronger response than she anticipated.”)

“Please don't call any Native American a racist. I've lived in a government subsidized apartment for years and there were many days I woke knowing there was nothing in the house to feed my children,” she responded to several UAPB alums. “Many believe students such as children on reservations can't learn so the schools lower their standards and give empty diplomas. They go to college unprepared. FACT: The more remedial courses a student must take — his chances of dropping out of college increase. The better prepared academically he is for university work — his chances of graduating increase. I am sure students graduating from UAPB receive an excellent education — I want to increase the number of those graduating.” ?Dr. Lawrence A. Davis, UAPB's chancellor, wasn't offended and doesn't believe Hutchinson was singling out his school. In fact, he calls the ensuing controversy a blessing in disguise. “It really did us a favor: It galvanized our alumni all over the country,” he says.

While Arkansas education officials, deserve high marks for trying to improve K-12 education, Hutchinson says, “we're still kind of low on actual results.” She believes colleges should step in and help out. “The universities are on top of the educational food chain and I want them to get interested in what's going on in the lower levels,” she says. “They know what schools their students are coming from. If 7 out 10 of them need remediation, then they need to go talk to that principal.”

Hutchinson said that ideas similar to hers have failed because schools feared losing their sports teams. Keeping football around was not the thrust of her proposal, she insists.

“I don't care if a community college has a football team, dorms, offers scholarships, or any of those extracurricular benefits. I want students to be prepared for academics on a university level,” she says. “I got a call from a parent — she was a black lady — who said she was glad I said this. Sometimes things get glorified beyond what it should be. We're starting to realize that not everyone can be a football hero and even if you do, you eventually retire, and you'll need a good education.”

Hutchinson submitted the proposal to a state legislative Task Force on Higher Education Remediation, Retention and Graduation Rates that has met monthly since 2007. Hutchinson admits she does not anticipate her plan to show up in the committee's final recommendations, scheduled for release this week.

According to the most recent data from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, 53 percent of all students at the state's four-year colleges are assigned some form of remediation. If Hutchinson's proposal were to be approved, Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia and the University of Arkansas campuses at Monticello and Little Rock, in addition to UAPB, would each have to cease remedial education programs by 2018.

At most universities, students require remediation in mathematics more than any other discipline. Approximately half of first-time UALR students need extra math help, says the dean of that school's College of Science and Mathematics, Michael Gealt.

As a matter of principle, Gealt would oppose any state mandate to dismantle the school's remediation programs. “I would be against any sort of ban. You can always take something apart, but that's not something we'd want to do,” he says, noting that the school receives money from the federal government to assist with remediation, funding that the school would otherwise forfeit.

In response, Hutchinson asks, “Would you rather keep getting federal funds for remediation or have a much higher graduation rate? I would rather sacrifice some federal dollars if we can increase graduate rates.” And besides, “taxpayers are getting upset that we pay to teach a child to read in elementary school, then we pay to teach them to read in middle school, and when they get to college, we're still teaching them to read.”

Nevertheless, Gealt believes that many students who need assistance in one subject benefit from remaining in a four-year university setting (he agrees that community colleges might better suit kids who require remediation in several areas). Once they get over the hump, they should be fine, he says, “Most of the students who come in needing developmental mathematics are not going to be mathematicians, they're not going to be scientists. The history major, for example, is not going need math beyond college algebra.”

Punishing colleges for high schools' failure to prepare students, Gealt says, could ultimately steer kids away from choosing to attend schools in Arkansas, where already just 17 percent of people older than 25 have bachelor's degrees, compared with 24 percent nationwide.

“If we stopped doing remediation in developmental math, that would stop a lot of students from wanting to come to UALR,” Gealt says.

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