Initiative seeks to raise high school students’ standards

An alarming number of New Hampshire’s college-bound students, like their contemporaries across the country, are unable to do grade-level math.“The consistent feedback from colleges has been that students are not well prepared to do college-level work,” said Tom Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College & University Council. The brunt of dealing with the problem falls on the backs of the state’s community colleges, where more than two-thirds of their incoming students are required to take non-credit, remedial courses to bring them up to a basic level of math competence.But, more often than not, remediation doesn’t work, as the students eventually drop out and never earn a degree.This lost opportunity is costly to the students, colleges and the state, but one program seems to be making headway in changing the trend by encouraging students to take more rigorous classes in high school – a route that, studies show, is the best to prepare students for college as well as careers.Three years ago, Horgan and several other New Hampshire education leaders started a state affiliate of the National State Scholars Program. Its aim is to partner with local businesses to persuade students to take more challenging courses.“Unquestionably, increasing academic rigor at the high school level is at the forefront of just about every conversation around education reform today,” said Scott Power, director of the New Hampshire Scholars Initiative.In those three years, the program has grown from 72 participants to over 1,400 this year. The initiative urges students in all 30 participating school districts to be aggressive with their course schedules to include four years of English, three years of math and lab-based science, 3-1/2 years of social science and two years of foreign language. These program requirements exceed the state’s minimum mandates.
Battling ‘mathphobia’For many students, the idea of taking tough elective courses is too risky. They are obsessed with maintaining a high grade point average. They see it as their ticket to a good college, but Power said it takes more than that.He said college admissions officers are looking beyond the old indicators – like GPAs and SATs. St. Anselm College and Southern New Hampshire University recently joined the growing number of colleges across the country that have stopped using the SAT exam to evaluate applicants. Students, however, remain in a quandary over math. Various indicators have shown New Hampshire students falling behind in this subject area.“Many students experience mathphobia,” said Martha Laflamme, vice president of student and community affairs at White Mountains Community College in Berlin. “They tend not to challenge themselves in that area if they don’t have to.” The fear of math courses has pestered Bob Condon since his undergraduate days, when he chose a college that would allow him to steer clear of a single math class while obtaining a degree in English.Condon went on to become a senior vice president of Franklin Pierce University and now has become the go-to guy at the state’s community college system on strengthening math preparedness at high schools. He simplifies his objective as encouraging “math-reluctant students to take math.” In some cases, the problem is practical scheduling. “It’s possible,” he said, “for some students not to see math for 2-1/2 years” because they can arrange their schedules to meet the state three-course math requirement in their second year of high school. This gap undoubtedly leads to loss of skills, and the deficiency is often caught in required pre-college placement tests.Nationally, 60 percent of all students at two-year colleges and 40 percent of the four-year colleges are required to take remedial math classes. Community colleges have higher remediation numbers because they typically serve adult learners, many of whom have not taken a math class in decade or more.Once a student is enrolled in such a class, which costs between $500 and $700, success becomes elusive for many. Just over half – 57 percent – of the state’s community college students enrolled in remedial math classes actually pass the course, and many more become discouraged and drop out.Remedial classes, Condon wrote in one report, are “unintentionally acting as a filter, rather than a bridge to college success.” “It (is) work that should have been mastered in high school,” said Ron Rioux, a former Manchester-based bank president, longtime state community college board member, and until recently interim president of Manchester Community College. “It wastes the students’ time and money, it is discouraging, and it means some level of double-paying by the taxpayers for instruction that should be paid for once. “
Encouraging studentsAll this can be avoided by simply asking students the right questions. By enlisting the business community, New Hampshire Scholars has found an influential voice.Tom Raffio, chief executive of Northeast Delta Dental and a member of state Board of Education, pointed to a study to back up the initiative’s work. “Seventy percent of the high school students take tougher courses because someone encouraged them to,” said Raffio.That encouragement is coming from the 140 business leaders who assist the New Hampshire Scholars Initiative by making classroom presentations, offering job-shadowing opportunities, participating in mentoring sessions and serving on advisory groups. Students also receive recognition that may distinguish them from other students competing for coveted scholarships or spots at first-choice colleges.Hudson’s Alvirne High School just finished its first year as part of the initiative. Guidance Director Bill Hughen said it helped students who “have tunnel vision” and very specialized goals to “celebrate the breadth of education,” opening up possibilities for students.One such student, he said, intended to pursue a career in business, but after taking a few science courses decided to study to become an engineer. The program, he noted, also helped not only top students, but also made the vital link between coursework and career paths.“It has made such classes as geometry and chemistry more popular among vocational students,” Hughen said, “There’s a lot of geometry in landscaping and chemistry in cosmetology.”