Adding It Up, Part 2: How to Keep an 'A'

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Less than a third of the nation’s community college students earn degrees after 3 years. One reason is the large number of students who need remedial classes. Here in New York, 75 percent of freshmen at the City University of New York’s community colleges take remedial math, writing or reading. WNYC’s Beth Fertig is spending this semester following a remedial math class at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. As she discovered, the students have competing demands which can make it difficult to keep up.

REPORTER: On the first day of class in September, Professor Jorge Perez told his students they were all starting off with an A.

PEREZ: Okay, everybody has an A. Am I clear? Now, it’s up to you to keep it.

REPORTER: Three weeks later, during a class on linear equations, Perez read off a list of how many students had completed their homework from the previous session. 32 were officially registered, and 29 had been coming to class. But as of 10 that morning, only 8 had done the assignment, which was due at midnight.

PEREZ: There are let me see, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Only eight students have done this homework. Out of those eight students, seven got a 100. Is that telling you something?


PEREZ: What is telling you? That those are the students who care.

REPORTER: If Perez’s students don’t always seem to care, that’s because math isn’t exactly a favorite topic. They all wound up in this remedial class –- which is about the equivalent of 9th grade algebra -- because they failed an assessment test. And more than half of this class already flunked remedial math at least once before.

MAHNKEN: Three times two?

NEMETH: What is it, two equals?

MAHNKEN: Two equals X, three times two equals X

REPORTER: 35 year old Dylan Mahnken is in the math lab going over equations with 42 year old Mark Nemeth. They’ve both returned to school in the hopes of changing careers.

MAHNKEN: I hate it, I hate it!

REPORTER: Mahnken didn’t do his homework this week, even though he’d done all of his other assignments and quizzes, which are submitted online.

MAHNKEN: I got stuck up halfway through the last homework and I didn’t do the last quiz. Cause I got stuck, stuck in a rut.

REPORTER: Remedial classes aren’t for credit. They’re often viewed as a necessary evil, the last hurdle to completing your course load. 22 year old Patricia, who declines to give her full name, says she’s keeping up. But it’s tiring because she works full time at a store in Manhattan while majoring in business administration.

PATRICIA: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I still have to pass my other classes which are more important for me cause I’m getting credits for and I’m majoring in them, so math for me? I don’t care.

REPORTER: However, she said she still hoped to complete the homework before the midnight deadline. So did Victor Lopez, who also works full-time.

LOPEZ: Today I have to finish the quiz that I left over last night, I was so tired. I just turned off my computer and went to sleep.

REPORTER: But that night, Lopez stayed awake after he got home from work and did finish his homework.

REPORTER: A few weeks later we’re at the Game Star on Junction Boulevard, where Lopez works selling video games and phones. He says he’s passed every assignment and even got a 91 on his first in-class exam.

LOPEZ: You have to motivate yourself that’s one thing.

REPORTER: 25 year old Lopez learned that the hard way. He dropped out of high school when he was an 18 year old ninth grader, admitting he just wasn’t interested. He’s been working in the electronics store ever since and says he’s hit a dead end.

LOPEZ: I remember I wanted to leave the job at one point cause I wasn’t getting paid enough. And my friend worked at a bank. And he tells me like what the requirements are, you need a high school diploma, GED. And I’m like OK I’m lacking one thing, important and that’s a GED. And most of the jobs right now they do require GEDs.

REPORTER: Lopez got his GED about a year ago, passing it on the second try. Now that he’s in college, he’s much more serious about school. The math professor allows students to take their online quizzes up to ten times to get the best score, because the software company generates different questions. Lopez makes the most of that.

LOPEZ: There was like a quiz that’s only four questions. I would always get like 75% and I’m like OK I can do better than that, it’s just four questions, I could do better than that. I took like almost 5 times to make it 100 percent, cause I know I could do better.

REPORTER: Lopez is succeeding despite a demanding schedule. He’s taking a full load of four classes, while working 35 hours a week. Professor Perez knows that’s not unusual. Most students work. A few are even on public assistance. That’s why Perez says he eventually relaxed the deadline for the homework assignment on linear equations. He says he does this often for his remedial classes.

PEREZ: As it normally happen when the test is coming the students say well, I need to study, so they were asking for extra time to do the homework. And since the idea for me is that they are going to learn I didn’t see anything wrong in giving them more time to do it.

REPORTER: Perez says almost everyone turned in their homework once he extended the deadline. But, as usual, that’s not always enough to keep them enrolled. Just before the midterm, two students officially dropped the course and five others had been repeatedly absent. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.

Hear more voices and see some of the students from this series here.

Learn more about Perez' class here.

Listen to Part 1 of this series here.

This report was compiled with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University.