SAILING AHEAD: Chattanooga State leads statewide push to help high school seniors

SAILING AHEAD: Chattanooga State leads statewide push to help high school seniors

June 22nd, 2013 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Gov. Bill Haslam answers a question during a news conference in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga State SAILS

* 200 students with ACT scores below 19

* 90 percent completed the SAILS program

* 25 percent also completed an advanced Early College Hybrid Online course

Source: Chattanooga State Community College

If a Chattanooga State program works as well in the rest of Tennessee as it does here, about 8,000 students each year will save some money and never have to take a remedial math course in college.

That's what Gov. Bill Haslam hopes, and that's why he dedicated more than $1 million earlier this month to expand Seamless Alignment and Learning Support, a program in which community colleges reach out to struggling high school seniors.

The students -- all of whom scored lower than a 19 on their ACTs as juniors -- are on pace to take remedial math in their first semesters in college after high school. But instead, community colleges administer the course to the students now, in high school, allowing them to start college in the same classes as most freshmen.

With $117,000 from taxpayers, Chattanooga State and three other community colleges launched a pilot program last school year. They worked with 500 students, and 82 percent completed the program.

Chattanooga State worked with 200 students at 10 high schools, including Brainerd, East Ridge, Howard and Red Bank. About 90 percent of those students passed the class.

And of those 200 students, about 50 completed the remedial math course so fast that they took a standard college-freshman-level math class in the spring. They passed that, too.

"It's incredible, isn't it?" said Robert Denn, the SAILS project director at Chattanooga State. "They went from being a semester behind in math to being a semester ahead."

With the new money -- about $1.1 million -- Chattanooga State leaders are preparing the rest of the state's community colleges to partner with high schools beginning this fall. In the upcoming school year, about 9,000 high school students are supposed to participate in the SAILS program.

Denn hopes to expand more. In the fall of 2014, he said, the program could work with 15,000 students.

Higher education leaders say students excel in the SAILS program because it's a "classroom disruption." It's not what they're used to.

Students don't sit in a room and watch a teacher the whole time. They don't practice what they learned only at home, by themselves. And they don't finish a particular lesson until they prove they know it -- really know it.

Students in the SAILS program spend at least half of class time in front of computers. Teachers are still there to teach, but for at least a portion of the day, students must practice each lesson through a computer program.

On the monitor, students answer questions, and they eventually take quizzes and exams. A student can't advance from one unit to the next until he scores at least an 85 percent on an evaluation.

The environment varies from school to school, with teachers receiving a bit of free rein, but this is how Debra Weiss describes her class at Red Bank. For about 30 minutes every day, she teaches a new lesson. Then, she sets the students free with their computers.

When students sputter, Weiss teaches them one on one. Some students finish a unit in one class period, others finish in a week.

The SAILS program follows the "emporium" model used in Tennessee community colleges. John Squires, Chattanooga State's director of mathematics, began using this type of program at Cleveland State in 2008, and he says it works because the program forces students to practice what they learn more than they do in a traditional classroom.

The SAILS program, Weiss said, is as much psychological as anything else. The students are free. They work at their own speed. And it's their responsibility to learn, nobody else's.

And these students who started the school year behind most of their peers now feel that they are on pace, said Mike Krause, an assistant executive director for academic affairs. Teachers can tell their classes they are in a college-level course.

"The messages you send students are important," Krause said. "To tell a college freshman the message of, 'You need to go back and take remedial classes' ... that's a blow."

Statewide, 9,229 community college students enrolled in a remedial level math class in 2012. And on average, these classes cost about $1,200.

But the classes hold a greater price, some higher education experts say. They derail college students right from the beginning.

Of the students who take remedial math as freshmen, only 5 percent earn their associate degrees within three years, according to the Chattanooga State Institutional Research Department. And half of these students don't even come close. They don't even return for their sophomore years.

Warren Nichols, the vice chancellor for the community colleges with the Board of Regents, is optimistic about the SAILS program's impact. But he also warned that, as it expands, the program will bring challenges.

A community college's first priority must be to work with its own students, he said, not high school students -- some of whom will never go to that particular college.

And then there is funding. The SAILS program requires money. The costs of software installed in each high school computer lab and the salary of a liaison between the high school and the college must be paid.

But if it continues to work, the SAILS program could stretch beyond math. Community colleges also run similar classes for remedial reading and writing. One day, those courses also may end up in a high school classroom.

"[We hope] they -- the high schools -- will choose on their own to incorporate the reading and writing program, as well," Nichols said. "It's the same concept, just a different topic and different faculty."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.