Stuck at the starting gate

Valley struggles to meet demand for intro-level classes.

by Kimiya Manoochehri, Special to the Star

Valley College students who plan to get on a set academic track often find a logjam at the starting line. And that congestion can divert them from their goals – and the school.

Aspiring pre-med student Becky Paz, 20, intended to major in biology. Frustrated after being repeatedly wait-listed for intro-level science classes without which she could not proceed, Paz finally switched to history.

“I was frustrated and [wasn’t] going to prolong my stay here when I would rather transfer out … so you can say I basically changed my major because I wasn’t getting the classes I needed. It has delayed my game plan by one whole year,” said Paz.

The problem is particularly acute for science majors because required labs cap class rolls at low numbers due to room restriction and safety regulations. Building-block courses Biology 3 and Anatomy 1, for example, were formerly capped at 36 students but recently increased to 40 because of student demand.

Vice President of Academic Affairs Karen Daar said, “Those same labs may also be used for other Biology sections, so the department chair needs to ensure that she is maximizing the use of those laboratory facilities to meet all Biology students’ needs.”

Since becoming the chairperson of the Department of Biology in spring of 2013, Professor Sara Huang has been attempting to address the problem.

“The department has been working hard with the college to increase our offering of Anatomy 1 from seven sections in Fall 2013 to nine sections in Fall 2015,” she said, ticking off a list of classes for which she has tried to add more sections, including in winter. She says her colleagues are well aware of the crush for basic classes such as Biology 3, juggling resources sometimes at the expense of other basic classes. “The department cut one Physiology 1 class so we can increase our Biology 3 class offering to 18 sections in Fall 2015 from 17 sections in Fall 2013.”

Even then, at a maximum of 32 students per Biology 3 section, that would only increase capacity from 544 in Fall 2013 to 576 students in Fall 2015. Huang says that while the college does not track the number of students requesting particular classes (as opposed to the number who get in), her department logs science-class requests. According to those numbers, a staggering 1,311 students requested Biology 3 in Fall 2013. That’s the high watermark under Huang, but the figure was as high as 961 in Spring 2013.

“As you can see … the department is unable to meet student demands,” said Huang.

While 30 “late-start” courses have been added this spring specifically to better meet students’ needs, including five Biology 3 sections, none of those added was Biology 6 or any from Anatomy.

Word may be getting around. Huang’s statistics show a precipitous decline in requests for Biology 3 in recent semesters (down all the way to 412 in Spring 2014). Anatomy 1’s requests have similarly cratered, going from 422 in Fall 2013 to just 164 last semester. While overwhelming demand is a problem, it may be preferable for the school to the problem of student flight.

Huang says, “I cannot speak on behalf of the college. As a department, we are struggling to meet student needs in certain areas even when the demand number has decreased. Personally, I am concerned that we may be driving students away to a different campus although I have no evidence to support my educated guess.”

Thus far, Paz has taken classes at two other schools, Pierce and Glendale Community College.

“Pierce is the second-closest college to me, and the commute is still so bad,” said Paz. “You have to get yourself at least two hours to commute. That’s what I did last semester. I took a class [at Valley] in the morning, then I had a two-hour time frame to get to my class at Pierce, and anything less than that I probably couldn’t get to my class in time. Especially if it’s lunch time.”

The distance between Valley and Pierce is 18 minutes driving via the US-101 without traffic; via public transport the commute is estimated at 41 minutes. Furthermore, additional time must be calculated to find parking or factor in traffic.

Glendale Community College is only two miles farther but is estimated to take over twice as long via the Metro. However, registration for Glendale or others not within the Los Angeles Community College District traditionally opens far later than Valley’s, making them a viable Plan B.

Valley currently does not have a formal wait-list system, but one is expected to be implemented during the next two years with the coming of the new Student Information System, according to Daar. Meanwhile, Monarchs can find themselves taking a long, long way around the track.

Your thoughts?