Following graduation from Vincent High School in June 2010, Darrell Cochran hit an obstacle on his path to his future. His plans to enter Milwaukee Area Technical College as an associate degree student were blocked by a low score in mathematics on MATC's entrance exam. Cochran could choose to take MATC Pre-College high school-level remedial courses to raise his math scores and delay his entry into the college as an associate degree student. Or he could choose to enter MATC's summer Smart Path program and try to improve his mathematics score.
The Smart Path program was an intense type of summer school offered to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students during the last two weeks of June. Funded by MPS, Smart Path was implemented by the MATC Recruitment/Assessment Department and the Pre-College Division. Most participants spent 75 hours over the course of two weeks at MATC's Downtown Milwaukee Campus studying mathematics, English and skills measured by KeyTrain, a nationally administered computer-based test that assesses various competencies required for workplace success. KeyTrain then automatically assigns areas of study where the students need it most.
Many students were invited to join the Smart Path program based on their scores on the Accuplacer, MATC's computer-based test to determine competency levels in mathematics, reading comprehension and sentence skills. Accuplacer results determine whether applicants are "fully admitted" or "conditionally admitted" to college-level programs, or whether they need to take basic skills classes in the Pre-College Division first.
During the past academic year, 1,162 MPS students took the Accuplacer tests. High school juniors and seniors who took the tests and needed improvement in one or more areas were invited to participate in the Smart Path program. Those entering their senior year of high school earned one quarter of a credit for participating in the program.
Participants showed their certificates of completion from the "Smart Path" program.
Most Students Saw at Least a 10-Point Jump in Test Scores
Of the 65 students who began in Smart Path, 53 completed the full program. Fifty students retook the Accuplacer test after the two weeks of intensive study. Thirty-seven of the 50 students improved their scores by 10 points or more in at least one category. Required scores vary by test and by the MATC program the student is entering. But in many cases, a 10-point increase is enough to move a student from "conditionally admitted" status to being a "fully admitted" student, for example.
Cochran needed a significant increase in his mathematics score to reach "fully admitted" status. He dedicated himself to succeeding in the Smart Path mathematics class. "This was the first time I had to go to summer school in my life, but if that's what I needed to go to college, it was worth it," Cochran said.
Sometimes it's just one concept that holds a student back, Cochran said. "I couldn't figure out how to simplify fractions. I was making it more complicated than it had to be. Once the instructor went through and explained it to me the right way, I got it. It made sense." Upon retesting, Cochran's Accuplacer mathematics score more than doubled.
Now he's working on general course requirements while he is on the waiting list for entering the Computer Simulation and Gaming associate degree program.
English instructor Linda Presberry, who worked with students on sentence skills and reading comprehension, also found that certain concepts were holding her students back. "Those are smart young people," she said. "They just lacked middle-class business vocabulary. For instance, it never occurred to them that there might be multiple meanings for one word. This is nothing new. We've known since the 60s that a lot of tests don't measure things fairly because vocabulary is different from culture to culture. So I worked with them on vocabulary."
"The major goal of the "Smart Path" program is to get these students to be program ready at the time of admission, and to be more developed and ready for the workplace."
-- Brunnetta Soward, MATC director or recruitment/assessment
Students Very Anxious to Learn
Presberry said that her students were eager to learn. "They're at a juncture in life when they're searching for something. Class didn't begin until 9 a.m., but I often arrived on campus by 7:30 or 8 a.m. There was always a group of students waiting for me when I got to work. As soon as I'd unlock the door, they'd go to their computers and start working. Some students didn't have computers at home. Lack of access to resources holds inner city kids back."
After the two-week session, 22 students went on to participate in the "Earn and Learn" program financed by the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board (MAWIB). MAWIB paid those students to work the rest of the summer at a variety of jobs, as well as offering classes in "soft skills" related to preparing them for success in the workplace.
"The major goal of the Smart Path program is to get these students to be program ready at the time of admission, and to be more developed and ready for the workplace," said Brunnetta Soward, MATC director of recruiting. "To see the students' confidence increase and to see the serious attitudes about taking the Accuplacer test was wonderful. I heard students say they felt better prepared for college and knew what they needed to do to pursue an education that would lead to a successful career."
This was the first time Smart Path included so many hours of intensive studies. During the two prior summers, MPS and MATC held six-hour Smart Path sessions intended to teach the students how to use the computer to take the Accuplacer tests.
"For years, I'd heard counselors from MPS ask if there was something MATC could do to help their students," Soward said. "This was the plan we came up with and I believe it really worked. We're trying hard to get an earlier read on which students need extra help."
Another goal of the program was to give students the chance to be on a college campus, and to give them the feel of going on to school.
The program helped Cochran prepare for college as soon as he stepped on campus in June. "I felt like I was having a college experience," he said. "It felt good, and it wasn't a big, scary deal when I walked into college classes on the first day."
Students celebrate at the "Smart Path" program completion ceremony.