Special Reports

March 1, 2014

Butler reworks some classes to help students succeed

Success rates at many community colleges don’t sound so successful these days.

Success rates at many community colleges don’t sound so successful these days.

“Struggling,” says Peter Adams, a national educational innovator.

Adams says this with reluctance, because he loves higher education and is trying frantically, as he says, to help save students and programs.

At stake are many futures, including those of Butler Community College students Staci Ensz, Cortez Leonard and Hayden Ribordy.

But those three students say Butler has deployed a teaching method Adams created several years ago. Educators at Butler are giving it wild praise.

They say Adams’ program has produced big increases in the number of students advancing to take more courses and stay in school – a 40 percent improvement.

“You don’t often get results like that,” said Karla Fisher, Butler’s vice president for academic affairs. “When you do, it’s magic.”

But first, here’s why educators like Fisher are grateful for innovations.


By the end of 2012, Butler Community College’s graduation rate stood at 21 percent, said Gene George, Butler’s associate vice president for research and institutional effectiveness.

Students retained from one fall to the next was at 66 percent, George said.

Like most community colleges (and many universities), Butler has many students taking “developmental” English composition courses, designed for those who are not ready for college classes. Among them: Ensz, from Newton, who wants to become a teacher; Leonard, from La Grange, Ga., who hopes to get into criminal justice or sports medicine; and Ribordy, from Oakley, who says he might try politics.

Sixty-five percent of Butler’s first-time freshmen need developmental classes. They don’t get college credit for them.

Butler students completed 200,287 credit-hours in 2012 – but 10 percent of that was the 20,687 credit-hours completed by 2,300 developmental ed students at Butler.

“We spent an estimated $2.8 million delivering developmental education,” George said. That was about 6 percent of Butler’s budget in an era where state support is diminishing.

In the past, said Susan Bradley, Butler’s dean of humanities and social sciences, many dropped out, faced with having to take one or even two developmental courses to prepare for entry level English Composition 101 courses.


Adams, for many years a developmental education teacher at the Community College of Baltimore County, Md., realized by the late 1990s that community colleges as they are now defined are in trouble if they don’t fix numbers like that. Failure rates of students at his school and others were sometimes two out of three. Butler faces the same challenges. If community colleges don’t fix it, he said, they will lose government support even more.

He created a program, the Accelerated Learning Program, that has taken off big – in Butler and across the nation at 168 schools.

The program at Butler began just a year ago with one teacher, Kathy McCoskey, who brought the idea to Bradley.

One year later, there are 12 instructors teaching 15 class sets, with plans to expand.

The first class set taught in “ALP,” as they call it, was “wildly successful,” Bradley said. All ALP course sets taught since then have been as successful. In just one course set, for example, 75 percent of the fall 2013 ALP students were successful; only 37 percent who were in more conventional developmental courses made it through. One other ALP course set produced an 85 percent success rate. Butler is now seeing numbers like that across the board with accelerated classes.

Butler doesn’t “dumb down” courses, McCoskey said. In one of her English comp combined classes on Feb. 18, students were studying the intricacies of everything from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to a vicious satire by journalist Russell Baker about the state of American education.

How it works

Ensz works 20 hours a week at a Dillons store, and her parents help with some college costs. She hopes to teach elementary education but has struggled with English composition.

“I don’t test well,” she said. When she enrolled, Butler assigned her to a developmental English course; in the first year, they tried Adams’ accelerated learning techniques.

A key to the success, McCoskey said, is that students taking ALP classes take the basic developmental class along with regular English Composition 101 – and take it with the same teacher, in the same classroom. So students like Ribordy spend two and a half hours each class concentrating on English – and another two to three hours a day of homework.

Leonard, a defensive back on the Butler Grizzlies football team, said the course work helped because it was designed to challenge with tough assignments but also made him work on English composition fundamentals.

“I got a lot more one-on-one teacher help,” said Ribordy. This prevents what Adams called “leakage,” meaning students who drop out after getting disenchanted with the long, hard road to an actual credit class.

“I liked it because the ALP class was with the same teacher I had for comp, in classes back to back,” Ensz said. “In the comp class, you get the general explanation of what we’re reading, writing and doing, and in ALP, you got more of an explain what the assignment was, and it was easier to ask questions.”

Concentrating so much English comp work in one semester also allows the teacher to give the developmental students more of a challenge, but with support, Ensz said.

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