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By Matthew Giordano

In an Oct. 21 editorial, The Buffalo News lamented the pervasive problem of high school graduates lacking essential knowledge and skills needed for success in college. As the editorial reads, “community colleges and even four-year colleges routinely contend with new students who cannot read at grade level or perform simple math problems. Time and resources, including New Yorkers’ tax dollars, are being spent on remedial training.”

Nationally, statistics show that 40 to 60 percent of first-time students require remediation in English, math or both.

While The News is right to highlight this problem, it is equally important to recognize that there is already much being done to address it. As an administrator at Villa Maria College, I have worked regularly with faculty, staff and students to tackle the problem head-on. Four years ago, Villa made this issue its top priority and the linchpin of a visionary plan to become the premier student-centered college in Western New York. We quickly implemented initiatives to meet students where they are and help get them where they need to be.

For example, we took the bold step of eliminating pre-college, zero-credit remedial courses in English and math. Instead, we require extra labs with our freshman English and math courses, so that students enroll directly in credit-bearing courses while still receiving support to address their gaps. Internal data shows that this approach is more successful than traditional remediation; it has the added benefit of reducing time to graduation, and thus tuition and loans as well.

Villa also introduced an innovative mentorship program; embedded tutors in certain freshman classes; established learning communities; and increased academic, social services, and mental health supports with the goal of improving the transition from high school to college. The results have been impressive, with grade point averages and retention rates climbing.

For those of us in education, it is easy to bemoan the fact that, in spite of this well-intentioned work, students are still lacking essential skills. It can also be easy to place the blame on the level below us – “What’s going on in the middle schools, in the elementary schools?” – or on parents, families, or society as a whole. These reactions are not always without merit.

At the same time, there is something simple we could all do: We could talk about it with one another. High schools and colleges rarely engage in dialogue about curriculum, teaching strategies and solutions. Recent efforts to jump-start these conversations mostly have stalled for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of a systematic incentive. Of course, there is only one incentive that truly should count – the well-being of our young people.

Matthew Giordano is the interim president of Villa Maria College.

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