Too many Pinellas graduates not ready for college classes, SPC official says

Published Sept. 17, 2014

LARGO — The boards governing St. Petersburg College and Pinellas County schools do not meet often, so Tuesday's joint meeting was supposed to be informational and pleasant, until it wasn't.

Riding the elevator up to the meeting at school district headquarters, SPC trustee and former chairman Deveron Gibbons said he planned to break up "the love fest."

Sitting down, he told the School Board and superintendent Mike Grego, "We get a whole bunch of students who are ill-prepared for college from the Pinellas County school system. … Some of these kids who are passing through the school system are not ready for college. "

Gibbons added: "I don't know what your mission is … I just know that what we get is not the finished product we should be getting."

About 1,800 students who graduated from Pinellas high schools with standard diplomas in the spring enrolled at SPC this fall. Of the 1,170 who were evaluated for course placement, the college recommended that 53 percent enroll in at least one remedial course. Also:

• 41 percent were recommended to take a remedial course in math.

• 28 percent were recommended to take a remedial course in writing.

• 22 percent were recommended to take a remedial course in reading.

"We can't continue to take on these young people coming out of school who are ill-prepared for college, who can't pass the entrance exams, which are minimal," Gibbons said. "They're not hard tests."

Grego said Pinellas has many initiatives to prepare students and has one of the highest college readiness rates in the state. When factoring in the SAT, ACT and the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT), the district estimates that 83 percent are prepared for college reading, while 69 percent of graduates are ready for college math.

"That said, we always want to increase college readiness," Grego said after the meeting.

Jesse Coraggio, SPC's associate vice president for institutional effectiveness, research and grants, said the college uses a different calculation for determining which students need remediation. He also said SPC attracts a lower caliber of students than would enroll at the University of Florida or the University of South Florida, for instance, so SPC's analyses should show lower readiness rates than Pinellas'.

Remedial courses have become more of a concern for SPC and other institutions across the state after a change made this year by the Florida Legislature. Lawmakers were concerned that the courses were adding expense and time to students' college careers. Starting in January, colleges could no longer require students to take the remedial courses they were placed into.

That semester, just 25 percent of the students recommended for remedial reading took the course. Skipping straight into a college-level class, these students were less likely to pass than their peers.

Bill Law, president of SPC, agreed with Gibbons that the number of first-time students needing remediation was an issue. However, he said the college should play a supportive, rather than critical, role.

"If it was easily solved, it would already be solved," Law said. "Nobody wants to have kids not succeed."

The two boards also addressed a topic they set out to discuss Tuesday: the benefits of their partnerships. A growing number of Pinellas students have been taking dual enrollment courses, as well as "early admission" and "early college" programs that can allow them to graduate from high school with a diploma and an associate's degree.

"This is what is going on, this is what's working," said School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook. Gibbons' comments were not in the spirit of the meeting, she said.

Gibbons said he was frustrated that they were talking only about initiatives that worked for high-achieving students.

"These are all successful programs, but what are we going to do about the kids that are failing?" he asked.