Ventura County's fledgling Cal State campus has embarked on a first-ever campaign to better prepare local high school students for college-level work.
Although still years away from launching a four-year university, Cal State Channel Islands has joined with the Santa Paula Union High School District to sharpen math and English skills of 11th-graders to help them gain early entry into the university system.
The initiative, which could be duplicated statewide next fall, dovetails with recent efforts at Santa Paula High to eliminate lower-level classes and funnel students into college prep courses.
It is the latest salvo in a campaign to reduce the number of freshmen entering the Cal State University system ill-prepared for college-level math and English and in need of remedial education.
It is also meant to demonstrate the university's commitment to educationally underserved communities in Ventura County, while cultivating a source of new students for the campus under development at the old Camarillo State Hospital complex.
"I think this is terrific," Channel Islands President Handel Evans said. "This is one of the first academic contributions this institution is going to make to this region."
Cal State faculty members will work with teachers at Santa Paula High to administer diagnostic assessments to an unspecified number of juniors at the 1,500-student campus.
Those assessments will tell students where they need help in English and math. Educators will work with those students throughout the school year to shore up weaknesses. In the spring they will administer the university system's basic proficiency exams in both subjects.
If they pass, the youngsters--as high school juniors--will be guaranteed admission to the Cal State system as long as they meet other requirements, including prescribed course work and a certain grade point average.
And those who don't pass will receive more help during their senior year and will be able to take another crack at the exams the following spring.
"These students essentially will have two years to strengthen their skills," said Allison Jones, Cal State's senior director of academic affairs. "What we're doing is offering, a year early, an additional aid for students to assess their ability for entry into the system."
Currently, the basic skills tests are offered only to seniors who already have earned admission to Cal State.
And there is no effort to go on to high school campuses to provide individualized instruction throughout the school year with an eye toward passing the proficiency exams.
"We want to develop a continuing flow of students who are prepared to enter the Cal State system and ready to immediately start taking courses toward graduation," said William Brand, superintendent of the rural high school district targeted by CSU officials because of its efforts to raise academic performance.
"We want our students to go to CSU and this is an in-road available to us now," he added. "We've told [Cal State officials], 'You give us a profile of what you want our students to look like to get there and I think we can meet it.' "
Cal State officials have long been searching for ways to reverse the tide of incoming freshmen in need of remedial courses.
More than half the freshmen who entered the university system last fall were unprepared for college-level math, and 47% lacked the skills to handle college English courses. This, despite the fact they were among the top third of California's high school graduates.
Starting this fall, the Cal State University system requires all entering freshmen to pass basic skills exams in English and math or to show proficiency in those subjects with sufficiently high SAT or Advanced Placement test scores.
Those who fail to prove proficiency are funneled into remedial programs, forcing a delay in their education.
Cal State officials have launched other programs to help reduce the need for such programs. Last spring, for example, the basic skills exams were given to juniors at high schools surrounding state universities in Hayward, San Diego and San Jose.
But Jones said none of those efforts was as in-depth as what is proposed at Santa Paula High.
For the first time, he said, high school juniors will undergo an early diagnostic assessment in English and math. And faculty members from Cal State campuses throughout the university system will be called on to help Santa Paula students prepare for basic skills tests in those subjects.
"We want to see if we can't develop a new way of identifying and preparing students to enter directly into college without the need for remediation," Jones said. "It's not an issue of getting students into CSU campuses. The primary goal is to raise the proficiency level in English and math so they do well regardless of where they attend."
Even in Ventura County, which boasts some of the highest-performing high schools in the state, students struggle to achieve basic proficiency in English and math.
For example, more than half of the 18 students who graduated from Camarillo High in 1997 and attended Cal State campuses last fall were not proficient in math, while 16% lacked the skills for college-level English.
Of the 14 Rio Mesa High School graduates who entered the Cal State system, 57% were not proficient in math and 60% fell short in English. And at Thousand Oaks High, where 23 graduates were Cal State freshmen last fall, 35% failed to prove proficiency in math, while 38% had the same problem with English.
At Santa Paula High, the most recent numbers come from the fall of 1996. At that time, nine graduates were enrolled as freshmen in the Cal State system. Nearly 90% needed remedial math, while 44% failed to prove English proficiency.
In the end, Channel Islands President Evans said he doesn't want the university spending a lot of time doing remedial work.
And he said if this effort works in Santa Paula, he can see it being extended to high schools across Ventura County and the state.
"A lot of the problem is not that our students are badly prepared, but rather they might not be prepared for the right things," Evans said. "What I would like to do is attract students from our region. I want them to believe they can come here, and I want them to qualify in such a way they can come here. And I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen."
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About This Series
"Birth of a University: Countdown to a Cal State Campus" is an occasional series chronicling the development of a four-year public university in Ventura County. This installment focuses on efforts to reach out to Santa Paula High School students and prepare them for college-level work and entry into the campus under development at the former Camarillo State Hospital complex.