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At Pasadena City College, some get an extra hand

A special support program provides extra counseling and tutoring to students trying to juggle work, school and family responsibilities. It's tough sledding for some.

June 14, 2009|Larry Gordon

When Pedro Hinojosa dreams about the future, he knows he wants something different from the hand-blistering digging and chopping he does to help out on his father's gardening route. He is drawn to a medical career, possibly as an emergency room technician, a nurse or even a doctor.

First, he has to get through freshman year at Pasadena City College.

That hasn't been easy, even though Hinojosa is among the PCC students who enrolled in a special support program that provides extra counseling and tutoring. They also take their classes together to help motivate them, but some have already dropped out.

"Juggling everything is really hard," said Hinojosa, a lanky 19-year-old from Pasadena who works long hours at a sporting goods store. But he appreciates the program's helping hand: "Most people don't get that in college," he said.

Twenty-eight students began the program last fall after placement tests showed they needed remedial English or math. Known as learning communities, the programs are increasingly popular as community colleges nationwide try to reduce staggeringly high dropout rates.

In California, barely half of all community college students who intend to transfer to a four-year college or earn an associate's degree or vocational certificate actually do so over six years, according to the state. Other researchers say the rate is lower, about 24%.

The support programs aim to boost those numbers by easing the isolation that often leads underprepared students to drop out in the first year, said Katherine Hughes, an assistant director of the National Center for Postsecondary Research at Columbia University. Early research shows that the groups help keep students in college a second semester, Hughes said, although the longer-term benefits are not yet clear. A detailed national evaluation is underway.

At PCC, officials say students enrolled in the programs generally do better academically than similar students outside. They cannot, however, always overcome poor high school preparation and personal problems.

That assessment matched the observations of a Times reporter who has followed one Pasadena learning group known as Career Pathways since the fall. Some students excelled from the start, while others slowly improved. A few, however, plummeted like sky divers whose parachutes never opened. A quarter of the group had dropped out by February; a handful more remain in danger of failing grades as the spring semester ends.

Some worked too many hours at low-wage retail jobs. Some faced immigration problems. Others partied too much.

The student whose life changed most dramatically managed to earn good grades. Jennifer Escandon, in her ninth month of pregnancy, trudged slowly to December's final exams. Then, with good timing, she gave birth to a son, Jason, during vacation.

In the small Pasadena bungalow she and her husband share with her parents, Escandon says she plans to transfer next year to Cal State L.A. to earn a degree in social work.

Her husband, who works restaurant jobs, cares for the baby while she is at college. She studies while the infant sleeps; it helps that Jason "is a really calm baby," she said.

Escandon, 21, expressed bewilderment that some students didn't take advantage of the tutoring. "The program works for students who take it seriously," she said.

Her group is composed mainly of first-generation college students from working-class, Latino immigrant families. Almost all came directly from Pasadena-area high schools -- although one, a 53-year-old grandmother, tackled college for the first time.

They took three fall classes together: college-level oceanography, and English and algebra a step or so below the level of transferable college credits. This semester, they are taking college-level English and political science, and some math. They receive registration priority and are allowed to use a well-equipped computer lab.

Of the 28 who started together in September, 19 returned for the current term; three left the group but enrolled in other classes at the college.

Overall, fall grades weren't terrific for those who stayed; in each of the three classes, teachers gave a D or an F to about a quarter of the students. Six received warnings this semester about poor attendance or grades.

Evangelina Quintanar, the group's counselor, calls the retention of 19 students good compared with some previous cohorts.

"But they all do present challenges. Before they walk into the classroom, they've all had to juggle and prioritize their day," she said.

Other PCC officials say the outcome would have been worse had the students been on their own.

"We're not happy, but we're not surprised," said Brock Klein, co-director of the college's Teaching and Learning Center, which runs seven learning groups this year through state funding and foundation grants. More significant, he emphasized, is that group members finish remedial classes twice as fast as other students and return in higher numbers for their second year.

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