Don Rearden stood at the white board of a University of Alaska Anchorage classroom this month, a teacher in front of about 10 students who had tested into a zero-level English course — a level below the introductory college course, a level that does not count toward a four-year degree and yet, a level that still costs students money.
Rearden taught Columbus that day, reviewing an essay by historian Howard Zinn that his class had read and that framed Columbus as an irreverent explorer who was hungry for gold and who was quick to enslave and inflict brutality on Native people after landing in the "New World."
It's the Columbus tale not usually told to young schoolchildren. But this is college now, and Rearden was making a point to the students who graduated high school yet weren't considered prepared for college-level English class — despite their diplomas.
Alaska's university system enrolls all students. The zero level aims to boost those not ready for college classes.
Rearden incorporated the Zinn essay into that day's lesson to challenge what students thought they knew when they left high school. This included, he told them, whether they thought they were bad at writing or if they thought learning was boring. Things were different now.
"Think about starting over," Rearden told his students, who sat at long tables in the white-walled room. "This is where you can become a scholar."
Nearly everyone in Rearden's class had just graduated from high school in the spring. They joined the hundreds of students at UAA enrolled in a zero-level math or English class this fall to catch up before taking college-credit courses.
It's not a new phenomenon in Alaska, but it's a troubling one for some top Alaska education officials who have long debated whether Alaska public schools' expectations are too low or the university's expectations are too high.
UA President Jim Johnsen said last week that an analysis of preliminary data from 2006 to 2015 found that, on average, 60 percent of the state's high school students who enrolled at the University of Alaska system required some kind of developmental or introductory class before earning credits toward their majors. Educators generally don't use the word "remedial" anymore because it comes with negative connotations, said Shannon Gramse, UAA's chair of preparatory college English.
Johnsen presented the data at last week's combined Juneau meeting of the UA Board of Regents and Alaska Board of Education, where they reviewed Alaska's state of education from kindergarten through higher ed. He said the data showed the clear need for alignment between the the state's schools and the university system.
The regents and board members discussed the need for a smoother education continuum. But, for now, students are still streaming into UA underprepared.
UAA has offered so-called "developmental courses" for decades.
In 1987, in a previous oil-price crisis, the regents merged UAA with Anchorage Community College, Kenai Peninsula College, Kodiak Community College and Mat-Su Community College.
It all became the University of Alaska Anchorage, which took on numerous identities — part four-year university, part community college, part technical school. It now offers development courses as well as graduate degrees and a lot in between. It's open access, so anyone can enroll.
Each fall semester from 2010 to 2014, more than 70 percent of incoming students who were seeking a two-year or four-year degree were considered "underprepared,"according to a report by UAA's Institutional Effectiveness, Engagement and Academic Support.
In fall 2014, the report said 67 percent of UAA's students from Anchorage and 76 percent from other parts of Alaska were underprepared.
Gramse said work has been done to refine how the university places students in developmental classes, but he doesn't see the need for that type of catch-up education to let up anytime soon.
"We are still overcoming that colonial history," Gramse said. "In most Alaska towns, there weren't even high schools until the late '70s, until the Molly Hootch decision (the Alaska Supreme Court order telling the state to build high schools in most villages). So many Alaskans in the '70s didn't even have high school degrees, and now we're seeing these folks' kids or grandkids coming to college."
Gramse said from what he observes, developmental English classes at UAA are mostly made up of first-generation college students as well as students who don't speak English as their first language. This semester, he said, UAA has about 200 students in zero-level English.
"All you need to get into UAA is a pulse, so that's pretty good," he said. "And how many of those students speak Hmong? And how many of those students speak Samoan? And how many of those students have always struggled? This is what they need."
Even more students enrolled in developmental math — about 750 students this fall, said Gail Johnston, chair of UAA's preparatory college math.
Johnston said she believes high school and expectations align well.
"I have faith in our system," Johnston said. "I think what's happening is students do fall through the cracks."
She said she noticed that many students taking zero-level math classes do not speak English as their first language and struggled with word problems. The state required students to take two credits of math in high school, though that will be three credits for students who graduate starting July 1, 2017. Johnston said some students may cram their math classes into the beginning of their high school careers and forget concepts by the time they graduate.
Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, said that 60 percent of students requiring some form of developmental classes was not necessarily high for an open-access university. In fact, it's around what he would expect.
"I think if you're open admissions plus there's this huge variation in Alaskan high schools, so I guess this figure is not surprising to me," he said.
Across the country, about 1 in 3 students going to a four-year university requires developmental education, while the percentage is closer to 60 percent at community colleges, he said. Developmental courses are offered at nearly all community colleges and about 70 percent of public universities, he said.
Over the years, the percentage of students taking developmental classes across the UA system has decreased.
Still, about 55 percent of the Class of 2016 had to take some kind of developmental course during college, according to Erin Holmes, associate vice provost for institutional research at UAA.
Developmental courses provide students with smaller class sizes and extra help. They cost as much per-credit as a 100-level class.
To decrease the number of students entering UAA underprepared, the university has attempted to do more intervention in high school, Gramse said.
This summer, UAA hosted its first summertime academy for English language learners from the Anchorage School District. A university professor taught the classes with a district teacher in an effort to better bridge the gap between high school and college, as well as to give students a taste at higher ed.
In math, the preparatory department has started to offer a computer-based "emporium" that allows students to work at their own pace and "fly as far as they can fly," Johnston said.
Both the English and math sides have consolidated low-level classes so students can move through the material quicker. This not only saves them money, but also, professors hope, decreases the chance that they will drop out. According to the UAA study on developmental education, only 17 percent of students enrolled in developmental education graduated in six years, compared to 27 percent of all baccalaureate seekers.
Rearden's class was one of the zero-level classes partnered with a second, higher-level course that he also taught. Instead of spending two semesters to get through the two levels, the students spent the morning in a 100-level English class and then stayed after for a second course, focused on review.
During that second session, Rearden explained to his students that they would spend time going deeper into the material. They further analyzed the Columbus essay that day and talked through the assignment: writing a letter to the explorer about what made them angry.
Students raised their hands and discussed persecution their families or cultures had faced. In many ways, it resembled a tiny high school class. It's meant to usher students into college and level the playing field without taking up two semesters, Gramse said.
"We know that K-12 education is not equitable," Gramse said. "We hold everyone to the same standards here."