Onondaga Community College is about to change the way it teaches reading and writing. It’s all because of the tireless work of two English professors, coupled with work focused around a federal grant, and the reorganization of all of the College’s majors into eight schools. “Students won’t be placed into developmental reading or developmental English any more. We are building a course that is going to be receptive to the needs of all of our students and get them where they need to be in terms of their critical literacy skills,” said English Professor Malkiel Choseed, Ph.D. “It’s the proudest thing I’ve ever done in my career and the most important work either of us has been involved with,” added English Professor Michael O’Connor.
Colleges have long considered and reconsidered the best way to structure developmental, or remedial, English and Writing. Statistics showed only a small percentage of students placed into remedial classes would finish them even if they were doing very well in other classes.
Four years ago OCC tried a new approach called the Accelerated Learning Program, or ALP. It allowed students to take a credit-bearing English course along with Developmental Writing in the same semester. The program worked well enough that OCC received a grant from SUNY’s Performance Improvement Plan to show other colleges how to replicate it.
As ALP was being implemented, Choseed and O’Connor were discussing how they could improve ENG-103, or Freshman Composition. “All of our research, our work, and ALP showed any student could do college-level work if given an appropriate amount of support. We recognized we could build on our ALP program to provide those students with the support in a credit bearing ENG-103 as long as we integrated reading into that course,” said O’Connor.
”English has always had reading, just like the reading courses have always had writing. Critical reading has always been part of the learning outcomes at least for the last decade or so. What we were trying to do as we made the shift to eliminate the barriers that are part of non-credit developmental education courses is a recognition of the formal elements of reading instruction and how we can build those in. Both in our experience and our research it shows all students can benefit from reading instruction and all students can benefit from writing instruction,” said Choseed.
As this work was being done on Developmental English and Freshman Composition, Integrated Learning Studies (ILS) Professors Pam Mullan, Sophia Marku, and Stephanie Putman were rethinking the way reading instruction and study skills were being taught at OCC. In conversations with O’Connor and Choseed, they all realized their work could fit together and students would be better supported in developmental reading and writing instruction if the courses were integrated. As a result of their collaboration, there will no longer be any developmental reading instruction at OCC. All of the work will now be done in Freshman Composition. ILS faculty will receive training to teach the course and help provide training in reading instruction for ENG faculty.
Two years ago OCC was the recipient of a Title III strengthening Institutions Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support Guided Pathways to Success, a five-year initiative designed to improve timely associate degree completion. OCC recognized in order for students to be as successful as they could be, the institution needed to support the whole student. One of the program’s goals was to accelerate the path to completion for developmental students in English. Choseed and O’Connor had been working on restructuring ENG-103 in their spare time. Title III made it possible for them to speed up the process. “Getting release time through Title III helped us make progress. We were doing work in between classes while juggling our teaching load,” said Choseed. “To have time to drill down into the data was incredibly useful,” added O’Connor.
At the same time, a workgroup consisting of OCC Faculty and Deans was participating in a series of Guided Pathways Institutes offered by SUNY (State University of New York). They studied topics such as advising, developmental education, and career and transfer issues. They also explored the possibility of putting all of OCC’s majors into eight different schools. The benefits of doing so would include an enhanced sense of belonging for students thanks to a strong connection to those within their school, fewer lost credits due to poor course selections, and ultimately higher rates of retention and completion. Work on the Schools concept ultimately became part of Title III.
Thanks to all of the behind the scenes work, students enrolling at OCC for the fall 2020 semester will be the first to enter in the new Schools format. Those taking ENG-103 will benefit from a smaller class size, with the number of students being reduced from 22 to 15. They’ll also engage with faculty members ready to think about them holistically. “The key to success for our students isn’t just their academic skills. It’s everything plus their academic skills,” said Choseed. “It’s about having a conversation with students in which you recognize that problems they’re facing matter. As much as possible we have to be flexible and put them in contact with people who can help them,” said O’Connor.
At the center of all of this is the issue of equity. O’Connor believes the changes happening within ENG-103 will go a long way towards making a difference in students’ lives. “For a lot of reasons having to do with economics and the way our inner cities and our students of color have been underserved in high schools, a lot of our students of color have ended up placed in developmental course work and then found it difficult to get out of that coursework. As a result we have lower rates of graduation for students of color and that’s true across the country. By getting rid of developmental education and providing every student the support they need and the skills they need in a class that challenges them and makes them recognize their work to the institution, we firmly believe it is going to close the equity gap. They’re not just getting through developmental education. They’re getting one step closer to graduation. It’s recognizing the work and the value they bring to the institution from their backgrounds. You’re not taking students and saying ‘you’re not ready for us yet.’ You’re taking students and saying ‘the work you’ve done is of great value. We’re going to work with that and you are going to grow over the course of a semester to get where you need to be.’”