WEST PLAINS, Mo. (AP) — After leaving high school as a teen mother, Ashley McCullough is back on track to receive a two-year degree and work as a respiratory therapist. But she first had to conquer a remedial math class and its core lessons on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division — the same basic skills her now 6-year-old daughter will soon start to learn in elementary school.
"I didn't have my act together," the 23-year-old said. "I had a baby at 16."
McCullough is far from alone at Missouri State University-West Plains, a two-year school nestled in the southern Missouri Ozarks near the Arkansas border where roughly three out of every four students take at least one remedial class.
That's well above the national estimates of remedial participation rates of 20 percent to 30 percent at four-year schools and more than 50 percent at community colleges. And like their counterparts at public flagship universities, rural teacher colleges and urban commuter campuses, many of McCullough's classmates will drop out before advancing to the next course, let alone graduate or move on to a four-year school.
It's forcing those on the front lines to try dramatically different approaches, from tweaking the standards that determine who needs extra help to allowing remedial students to simultaneously take the introductory classes they were once barred from.
The changes come as impatient lawmakers in states such as Connecticut, Kansas, Ohio and Tennessee are restricting or eliminating remedial classes at public colleges, or even threatening to withhold money from schools that don't do a better job of preparing unprepared students for the rigors of college. In Washington, President Barack Obama has challenged two-year and four-year schools to improve workforce training and college completion rates.
"When you have 35 percent of students passing your course, that is not acceptable," said Missouri State math specialist Thora Broyles. "Something had to be done."
At West Plains, the first step was hiring an administrator to focus solely on what practitioners prefer to call developmental education, rather than assign the task to a disinterested or overburdened faculty member.
The nomenclature is more than symbolic, said Mirra Anson, who was hired as the school's "dev ed" director thanks to a five-year federal grant.
"With remedial education, the connotation is we are making up for things they didn't learn in high school," she said. "But with dev ed, we are developing the skills they need to have to be successful. There's a different connotation there. There's no need to remediate what they didn't have in high school, because that part of their life is over. So let's move forward now and talk about what you need."
That means no more lectures for Broyles' remedial math students, who instead work on self-paced lessons in computer labs. Rather than lecture, Broyles instead works individually with students, aided by two tutors culled from the ranks of advanced students. The approach, developed at Virginia Tech Univeristy, is known as the "Emporium" model. Some students complete the two remedial classes and a required college algebra class in one semester; others take weeks before even moving past simple equations.
"I like the fact they give you the option to work at your own pace," said McCullough, who completed high school in a home-based program after her daughter's birth and now has another child who soon turns 2. "I probably wasn't on the same level that everybody else was (who had enrolled) right out of high school."
New West Plains students struggling with basic grammar, punctuation and argumentative writing now take the same freshman composition course as their more advanced peers, but separate into smaller groups — with the same professor — for a pass-fail developmental English class that builds on the work covered in the more advanced writing class. The "accelerated learning program" is modeled on a similar effort at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland.
Sydney Wilson, an aspiring teacher from Houston, Mo., expects to receive her associate degree in the spring and a four-year diploma from the school in 2014 after successfully completing the accelerated English course.
The teacher "could take everything we were writing about in the first English class, and in the second class, we'd just write about it in more detail," Wilson said. "So I wasn't writing two separate papers for each class, it was just tied together as one."
Like most schools, West Plains uses student scores on the ACT or other standardized college entrance exams to determine who needs additional help. That approach has come under fire from some reformers who question whether other measures, such as high school grade-point average or course evaluation, are predictors that are more accurate. Two recent studies by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College found that up to one-third of new students in the examined school systems were improperly placed in remedial classes.
And a scathing report released in May by the Washington-based nonprofit Complete College America called remediation "higher education's bridge to nowhere," traveled by nearly 1.7 million U.S. college students, with almost four in 10 community college remedial students not completing those courses and just one in 10 graduating from those schools.
The challenges of remedial education, though, transcend curriculum, said Rebecca Goosen, dean of college preparatory at San Jacinto College in Texas and president of the National Association of Developmental Education.
For many, life challenges become all consuming, she said, from the single mother losing a reliable babysitter to the teenager who can't afford to fix a broken-down car.
"People are trying to find the silver bullet," Goosen said. "It's a very complex issue...We are not going to fix, in a 16-week period, what's been broken for years."
In West Plains, college students also struggle to excel in a region marked by high poverty and unemployment, low cultural expectations and public schools where the quality of education varies widely, numerous students, teachers and school Chancellor Drew Bennett said in interviews.
For Bennett, that means offering students what he calls the "Missouri State-West Plains Promise," a one-time guarantee that allows students who receive a "D'' or "F'' grade that causes their grade-point average to sink below 2.0 to retake the same class the next semester at no cost — provided the students have no more than two class absences, submit assignments on time, and seek outside help from teachers, advisors and tutors.
Bennett, an ex-Marine and National War College professor, reinforces that message and other important university missives by reaching students where they congregrate, which includes reminders and motivational tips posted in a weekly restroom newsletter known as the "Stall Study."
Yet for all of the schools' efforts — its innovations have attracted acclaim from the Aspen Institute as one of the country's top 30 community colleges — the hurdles its student face outside the classroom can appear insurmountable.
Single mother Kristi Hargrove, 39, returned to campus in 2009 after dropping out following just one semester nine years earlier: "I was too young to know any better and too young to care," she said.
Placed into remedial math, she struggled to keep up. But a series of personal upheavals — from her brother's death to a broken engagement — culminated with Hargrove again dropping out earlier this year, 20 credits shy of her associate degree in nursing.
"The pressure just kicked in, and I had to quit school," she said. "I call the Ozarks 'quicksand.' Once you're here, you're here (for good), and can't make enough money to get out."
Elizabeth Kusel, 42, returned to school at West Plains after first enrolling at a two-year school near her southern Oregon home more than a decade ago. A single mother, she lived in a women's domestic violence shelter with her two sons, ages 8 and 9, after her divorce and is now an honors student with hopes of attending the University of Virginia and law school at Stanford.
She too had to survive Math 20, the remedial class that defeated too many of her fellow freshmen. Kusel sympathizes with those who don't make it.
"There have been a lot of days I ask, 'Why am I doing this?'" she said. "It would be so much easier to go get a dead-end job and pay everything off and not go through this."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier