Math used to scare the dickens out of Lemarr Carr.
He did enough to "get by" with C's at Milford Mill Academy, but the 17-year-old knew he'd have to reckon with his most difficult subject as a freshman at Coppin State University. So why not start the battle early?
Carr was one of 175 incoming freshmen who recently spent six weeks living at Coppin and receiving a daily 7 a.m.-to-10 p.m. dose of what to expect from college. As part of Coppin's Summer Academic Success Academy, students boned up on introductory English and math classes but also learned how to take notes, approach faculty members with problems and put on a play.
The academy is one of the first planks in a drastic overhaul designed to improve Coppin's retention and graduation rates, which are the worst in the state university system.
The university also plans to toughen admissions standards, require students to meet with academic advisers before enrolling every semester and assign a financial aid counselor to work closely with each student. In 2011, officials hope to unveil an ambitious redesign of Coppin's freshman experience; all students would begin in the summer academy and would then be placed into small groups that would stick together through their first year of classes.
Family members thought Carr was crazy to spend the summer after graduation in classes, but as Coppin professors broke down the basics of algebra, his confidence grew. He felt downright giddy when he tested out of remedial math, meaning he'll take a for-credit course in the fall semester.
"My confidence is through the roof," Carr says. "When I tested out of Math 97, I said to myself there's nothing else I can't overcome."
Carr's response was exactly what Coppin officials hoped to hear from the pilot class of the academy, attended by almost one-third of the incoming freshmen. They believe that if students build confidence about college before officially starting, they'll be more likely to stick with it through graduation.
"The idea is to give them a sense of the rigors of higher education," says Reginald Ross, Coppin's vice president for enrollment management.
"We've worked them so hard this summer that they will not get that shock when they come back in the fall," adds academy director Juanita Gilliam.
Ross and Coppin President Reginald Avery hope the blend of close attention to freshmen and more regular counseling for upperclassmen will gradually boost Coppin's six-year graduation rate from 13 percent (for freshmen entering the school in 2003) to 50 percent or 60 percent.
"I do see the year 2010 as the real starting point for trying to get these pieces in place," says Avery, who was brought in 2 1/2 years ago to improve the retention and graduation numbers and hired Ross about a year later to manage his sweeping reform.
Avery's boss, Chancellor William E. Kirwan, has called Coppin's graduation rate an "embarrassment" to the state.
But Kirwan says Avery is doing exactly what he was hired to do, implementing the kinds of plans he used to improve graduation and retention numbers at his previous stop, the University of South Carolina Upstate.
"He's done a lot of homework in getting ready for this big push, and I believe he's put together a substantive, meaningful agenda to get at this issue at Coppin," Kirwan says.
The chancellor expects to see effects from Coppin's reforms in the next year, as freshmen return for the spring semester and then for their sophomore years.
"I'm quite optimistic," he says.
Avery arrived in January 2008 with bold predictions that Coppin would raise its graduation rate to 50 percent within three years. But he quickly discovered that problems ran deeper than he expected.
Though Coppin officials say they have the right blueprint, they're cautious in discussing a timeline for improvement.
Ross equates the effort to "turning an aircraft carrier around."
About half of the students who leave Coppin before graduating do so during their first year. So Avery and Ross quickly determined that the key to improving graduation numbers was to retain far more students from freshman to sophomore year.
In order to get the graduation rate to 60 percent, Coppin would need to improve its first-year retention to about 80 percent, Ross says. Though the rate improved last year, it's still only 62 percent.
The problems begin before students arrive at Coppin.
"We recruit heavily from inner-city Baltimore," Avery says. "A lot of kids come out of there and do well, but in general, there's a problem where they're weak in math and they're weak in English. That's not just Coppin's problem. It's the state's problem and the nation's problem."
Students who reach the university with subpar math and writing skills are forced to start with remedial courses instead of earning credits for graduation. That decreases their chances of earning degrees within six years.
Ross plans a multipronged counterattack.