The Second-Chance Club

Inside a semester of remedial English

March 11, 2013

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle
Students in a remedial English class at Montgomery College, in Maryland, must pass to begin taking courses that count toward a degree. If they fail, they have to take the class again.

Nobody wants to be here. In remedial English, earning no credit, stuck. Now—after months of commas, clauses, and four-paragraph essays—students have one last chance to write their way out.

Twenty students sit at computers, poised to start the final in-class essay for English 002 at Montgomery College. Just outside Washington, this suburban community college is tucked in a neighborhood between two Metro stations. Anybody can enroll here, and all kinds do.

The professor, Greg Wahl, walks around the room. On every blank screen, a cursor blinks.

In 85 minutes the students must craft a thesis and clear topic sentences, using evidence to support their opinions. They have to answer one of three questions, about their assigned book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, or their difficulty in mastering goals for the course, such as "Write and edit sentences that observe the conventions of standard American English."

Names appear in the upper right-hand corners of screens. Kenneth Okorafor, a Nigerian immigrant who lives in his sister's basement and strives to live by his father's words that education is power. Dominique Parrish, a high-school dropout chasing a bachelor's degree. Lynn Clemons, a middle-aged mother of three who's often anxious in class. Xiomara Sanchez, a bright but sometimes unmotivated 19-year-old expected to look after her sister's children.

As the minutes tick by, the students type, flip through their books, stop and stretch in their seats. One rests his chin in his hand and gazes at his screen. Sounds from the movie Dick Tracy, playing in the next classroom, blare through the wall.

At 12:15 time is up. Those who haven't yet printed their work turn it in and file out. Kenneth, in black plastic glasses, and two West African classmates are still frantically typing.

Come on, one pleads to Greg, trying to buy time. "We're best friends, you know what I'm saying?"

Sixty more seconds could be the difference between having a conclusion or not. But that extra time isn't fair to the other students, Greg explains, and the college could punish him for bending the rules. The three students finally surrender their keyboards and vow to defend him if the few extra minutes cause trouble. "Anybody tries to mess with you," one tells Greg on his way out, "we've got your back."

Today's essays complete the students' portfolios. Later, Greg lugs the folders, bound with thick rubber bands, back to his apartment. His evaluation of the portfolios will determine who moves on and who does not.

The students in English 002 stand at higher education's threshold. If they make it through, they advance to college-level courses that count toward a degree. Otherwise they must decide whether to try again, running down their financial aid, or give up on college and make do without it.

For now, they all belong to the second-chance club known as remedial education. They're here because something, somewhere, went wrong. They didn't care about school, or school didn't care about them. For some, reading or writing never came easily. Maybe they didn't speak English as children. Or they lacked money, guidance, opportunity. Courses like English 002 are supposed to catch them all up.

It's a lot to ask. Many students have a long way to go, and their obstacles are hardly confined to the classroom. Nationally, of the students who place into remediation—as many as 90 percent at some community colleges—only about a quarter go on to earn a degree.

Here, past failures have worn some students down, and the prospect of success seems to frighten them. Several hope to attend four-year colleges and pursue careers, yet some have struggled to pull clear of bad circumstances or habits. Others are just drifting through.

With the final essay done, all the students can do is wait. Two weeks from now, each will sit down with Greg. One by one, he will tell them the news. Either they have passed or they will still be here—in remedial English, earning no credit, stuck.

As the semester begins, Greg knows he can help some students make it. Not most, maybe not many, but some. First he must learn their names.

On a Thursday morning in early September, still summer warm, he takes the bus here from Washington, where he lives with his wife, Diane, and 4-year-old daughter, Daphne, who's just learning to read.

At the college, Greg sits in his cluttered office, reviewing the roster: 25 students are enrolled, an even split of men and women. About half have taken the course before. The rest either barely passed English 001 or scored below the cutoff on the college's standardized placement test. The course costs county residents $742; those from farther away pay double.

Just before 10:15, Greg walks to Room 328. Students get up off the hallway floor and file into the computer lab. He stands in front: a slight, spry man, 43, in a green striped shirt, an orange lanyard around his neck holding ID and a transit card. He is the only white person in the room. Nobody sits in the front row.

Each time he starts at the beginning: the basics of being a student, the pep talk, the idea that writing isn't so bad.

The first day of class used to shake him. For many years, across different campuses, it made him puke. He started teaching in the early 1990s, first as a master's student in English at the University of Northern Iowa, then as a doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. Since then he has worked at Maryland's Baltimore County campus, Trinity Washington University, and here at Montgomery. He used to plan his first class so he could start, run to the bathroom, and then come back. Finally the episodes passed.

Now the first day fires him up. Each time he starts at the beginning: the basics of being a student, the pep talk, the idea that writing isn't so bad. Students can come into remedial classes angry, but he doesn't give them time to vent. His attitude: You want to learn some grammar? OK!

Those who teach remedial—also known as developmental—courses must cover what other instructors take for granted. "Who knows what a syllabus is?" Greg asks eagerly. He gets a good answer and urges the class to study the stapled document like a textbook. There will be a quiz next week.

He explains grading. At the end of the semester, each student will submit a portfolio of three essays to be evaluated according to a rubric. If the writing passes muster on all of 15 counts, its author can move on to other courses. "All the stuff you wanted to come to college to do," Greg says.

One woman looks concerned: "There's an essay due next week?"

"Yep," says Greg.

"What's the topic?" she asks.

Even a small assignment, Greg knows, can scare a student off. "Don't worry," he says, "we're going to start working on it today."

He turns the discussion to essay structure. An introduction should end with a thesis, he tells the class, and the next two paragraphs should each start with a topic sentence. Then comes the conclusion. So, he asks, how could the introduction start? "Background?" one student says.

"Have you been in this class before?" Greg asks.

"No," the student says, timidly.

"OK, good, you're just smart."

The young man smiles, showing a mouthful of braces.

Greg tries to sustain students' interest by talking football: He helps the class write a thesis about why the Washington Redskins are going to win the Super Bowl. They then turn to their first essay assignment, on strategies for academic success. First they must draft a thesis. The classroom goes quiet except for the clicking of keyboards.

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle
Dominique Parrish (left), a 24-year-old high-school dropout, talks with Greg Wahl, the instructor in English 002. After trying to make her way without a degree, she says, "I wanted to start over."

Dominique Parrish needs the practice. She came here from English 001, where she wrestled with grammar, put commas in the wrong places, and often confused homonyms, typing "witch" instead of "which." Once, while composing an in-class essay, she froze. Heart pounding, she switched topics and started over, leaving no time to check for mistakes.

Growing up on Chicago's South Side, she attended public schools where students walked through metal detectors every morning. Both her parents had run-ins with the law. She used to like Junie B. Jones books, but later lost interest in reading. Always popular, she chit-chatted her way through school.

After moving to Maryland to live with her father, she dropped out of high school but later got a GED. She managed a grocery store. She sold a slew of Fords for an auto dealership but was laid off. Then one day she enrolled at Montgomery. "I wanted to start over," she says.

Ms. Parrish, 24, also wanted job security. She decided to pursue accounting, but first she had to take placement tests. No sweat, she thought. After all, she had earned good grades in English classes, had helped write business plans. So when she saw her score, she says, "I was pissed."

Now she's here in English 002, serious, her hair pulled back tightly, writing a thesis statement about her pitfalls as a student. Like not taking notes, because she thinks she'll remember what the professor is saying.

As she and her classmates type, Greg walks around the room, giving pointers. Starting today he will be their coach, champion, stickler, judge. With a few minutes left in the two-hour class, he tells everybody to print what they've come up with so far.

He puts one page on the overhead projector. "As a student, I didn't pass school because I didn't follow rules like going to class and doing my assignments." Greg praises the personal reflection.

The students keep writing. "This is great, guys," he says. "You're doing great."

The weeks roll on, Tuesdays in a cinder-block classroom, Thursdays in the computer lab. Each week there's more grammar to practice: parts of speech, verb tenses, coordinating conjunctions. Chapter by chapter, the class reads The Absolutely True Diary, a young-adult novel about a poor, 14-year-old Spokane Indian named Junior. Some of his struggles reflect theirs. Every two or three weeks, an essay is due.

Each class starts at 10:15, but students regularly arrive 15, 20, 30 minutes late, sometimes in headphones spilling tunes into the room. One day Tony Jones comes in late, empty-handed, and asks to speak to Greg privately. The professor tells him to please take a seat.

They're on Page 375 of the grammar book, Exercise 46-4: sample sentences with adjectives to underline and adverbs to circle. Among them: "Success can be elusive to those who object to working hard."

In the next exercise, a student identifies "most" as a noun. Greg asks if she can draw a "most." A couple of students giggle. It's funny, he says, but a good question if you don't immediately know. "I don't," he says, "and I teach grammar for a living." Sometimes a little self-deprecation puts students at ease.

As the class keeps at it, Greg checks in with Tony. The day before, campus officials confiscated his backpack. He doesn't say why. His phone, assignments, everything is in that bag.

A third-semester student, Tony is taking this course for the second time. He's an enigma. He often wears a knit cap pulled down just above his eyes. Class after class, he sits, slouching, in the back corner. When questions stump other students, he often whispers the right answer. But rarely does he raise his hand.

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle
Tony Jones (left), who is taking English 002 for the second time, is an enigma. Class after class, he sits, slouching, in the back corner. When questions stump other students, he often whispers the right answer. But rarely does he raise his hand.

Here in remedial English, students often need help with more than homework. So Greg takes time for the missing backpack. At a four-year college, a professor might say, Not my problem. But a community college enrolls anybody who shows up, i's dotted or not. Instructors here often must be social workers, too. If you take students in, Greg believes, it's your obligation to support them.

Breaking points come at every turn. One crucial moment, Greg says, is when students hand in the second draft of their first essay. Will they make the same mistakes again? Typically, he says, 60 percent of a class seem to catch on, 30 percent get it but still struggle, and 10 percent are lost.

On a Tuesday in October, as rain hammers the windows, Greg hands back those second drafts. They're good, he says, but many need to "go deeper."

One student doesn't get a draft back. He raises his hand.

"Did you give me an essay?" Greg asks.

"Yeah," he says.

Greg checks: "I don't think I have one from you."

A moment later, the young man pulls the essay from a folder. He hands it to Greg, who says, "OK, so you didn't turn it in." The student looks puzzled. "Since you still have it," the professor says. The student nods.

"OK," says Greg, "I'll grade it."

As the weeks come and go, he keeps looking for ways to make writing less daunting, to help students put words on the page. One day he gives them a few personal essay prompts. Type without stopping to think, he tells them. "Just flow." He always grades in green or purple ink; red looks angry.

Anxiety can derail a fragile student, and so can any interruption, even a substitute teacher for one class. Some find the idea of college so uncomfortable, says Greg, they'll use any excuse to bolt. A few already have.

Often he e-mails and calls, urging students to come back. But every semester, some just disappear, ghosts on a roster.

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle
Elio Perdomo, 18, works up to 40 hours a week stocking produce at a supermarket. It's hard to work so much, he says, and still find time to study.

Some vanish because jobs tire them out. Students in Greg's class make meatball subs at Subway and sell sneakers at Foot Locker. Elio Perdomo, eloquent and muscular, works 40 hours a week at Safeway, unloading crates of apples and oranges and cauliflower and lettuce.

Elio, 18, graduated from high school last spring. His English teachers marked up his papers but offered little help. Not that he asked. By the time he got serious about school, he'd piled up years of C's and D's. "I wanted to start over," he says, "to do what I should have been doing in high school."

His mother, who cleans that high school, encourages him to study hard. But his eight-hour shifts drain him. Many nights he gets home after 10, and his back hurts. Studying seems like yet another chore. "I would think about it," he says, "but my body was like, 'Nah.'"

By late November he has missed about half of Greg's classes. Only then does he realize he can't keep working so much if he wants to succeed in college. His future, he decides, does not lie in the stockroom of a supermarket. So he goes back to class but worries that it's already too late.

By now, Greg can see a divide. Some students are improving steadily. Others look like long shots.

The class struggles with commas. One morning Greg projects a sentence onto the white board and asks students to put commas in the right spots with markers. The first attempt: "This course I will try and do better, by following Dr. Stewart's rules, so I can be successful, and pass my courses."

"I'm sorry, that's incorrect," says Greg.

Four more students each take a turn, adding, erasing, adding. Finally, the sixth student punctuates the sentence correctly.

Another day the class discusses introductions—how to include enough detail without overwhelming the reader. "My porridge is too hot, my porridge is too cold, so let's get it just right," says Greg.

The class is silent. "What?" one young woman asks.

"Never mind," he says.

Sometimes attention frays. Students whisper, take calls. When they fill in worksheets together, some debate the right verb tense, some do each other's hair. During one exercise, a young man walks out, only to return a while later munching a handful of cookies.

After one particularly frustrating class, Greg sighs, swears, and shakes his head. Some students aren't trying. They come late and sit playing solitaire. One day just four have done their homework. When the professor urges one student to get serious, he replies, "Can you take this class online?"

Sometimes Greg hopes a couple of the social ringleaders will give him an excuse to kick them out. One morning he tells a young woman distracting her friends to leave. Her absence, he knows, will help everybody concentrate.

Several students always keep their focus. One is starting to recognize dependent and independent clauses. A pair of young women who sit together seem to know all the answers. "You're my grammar stars, by the way, you two," Greg tells them.

One morning he gives the class a list of sentences, each with a common error he sees in essays. "Margaret has began her summer program," one reads. He asks what's wrong.

Many students aren't sure. "If you can hear it, then you're lucky," Greg says. If not, you have to examine the sentence mechanically. "It's like math," he says. Some students groan. All this drudgery, he says, will help them edit their essays.

After class one day, a few students grumble about grades, which are A, B, or U, for unsatisfactory. "Whenever he's handing back our essays—all U," one woman says, "everybody." Her friend wonders if it's Greg's way of motivating them. "He doesn't want you to feel too comfortable," the student says. "I'm just assuming."

Dominique's essays come back riddled with green and purple marks. More than once she seeks help from Greg, who offers suggestions and encouragement. After one class, she stays behind. "I think I figured it out," she says, holding up a paper with several errors corrected.

"Yep, these look good," Greg says. As she's walking out the door, he calls to her. "Dominique, just keep it up, and don't panic. OK?"

By Thanksgiving, Greg worries that students' grammar and syntax haven't come far enough. Time is running out.

But a December morning brings a pleasant surprise. Xiomara Sanchez, a student who had disappeared, walks through the door in her North Face jacket and Uggs. "Xiomara, I haven't seen you in a while," Greg says. "Welcome back."

Xiomara lives a half-mile from the campus with her mother, three sisters, brother-in-law, two nieces, and baby nephew. When the children's mother goes to work, as a cleaner, she relies on Xiomara to watch them, class or not.

"It gets overwhelming for her because she does have three kids, but I have my own life. Like, that's not my responsibility," Xiomara says. "But then, those are my nephew and nieces. ... I can't say no and just leave them there."

Xiomara Sanchez realizes she's fallen too far behind. "I'm missing so much class," she says. "What am I doing?"

Right before the final in-class essay, though, Xiomara realizes she's fallen too far behind. "I was like, I'm missing so much class. What am I doing?" she says. She tells her sister she has to go back. She finds a cousin to baby-sit.

Xiomara, 19, also worries about slipping back into bad habits. She loved to read as a child, but since middle school, not so much. In high school, she showed up for class maybe two days a week. She'd stay home, she says, or go to her boyfriend's house.

Finally, the school kicked her out. Expulsion had a funny effect. "When they take that away from you, I guess you realize, like, you miss it," Xiomara says. "You need school."

With dreams of earning a business degree and opening a restaurant—upscale Salvadoran—she is trying to catch up. Last year she got her GED, started working about 50 hours a week at AutoZone, and took placement tests at Montgomery.

When her scores put her in developmental courses, she didn't try again as some of her friends did. She was rusty, she figured, and didn't want to get in over her head. "What if I get placed into credit classes," she remembers thinking, "and just fail?"

Now, Xiomara hopes to salvage her semester. The college lets instructors drop students who miss more than one week of class, and she's been away from the campus for several. Her developmental-reading instructor turns her away, but Greg gives her another chance.

December 6 is a big day: the final in-class essay, which will complete the portfolios. The students have been revising two of the five essays assigned over the semester, and today they will turn them in. Some have visited the writing center several times. The waits were so long, one student says, that he just did what he could himself. A few students were up till 3 or 4 a.m.

For a moment, they all study the three options for the in-class essay. One: "Choose Junior and one other character and describe how each has two sides to his or her identity."

"What do you mean by 'identity'?" a student asks. The consensus is personality plus culture plus the way you think of yourself.

"What's the first thing you should write?" asks Greg. Several students call out "Thesis!" and "Topic sentences!" At 10:50, they start typing.

By 11:24, most have at least a paragraph. By 12:08, many are printing. Then, 12:15: Time is up. "I don't want to be that guy," Greg says, "but I will shut off your computers."

Every student, even those who plead that they haven't finished, turns in an essay. Lynn Clemons is missing one of the two other papers for her portfolio, but she promises to deliver it to Greg's office. He wonders if she actually will.

Lynn, 54, grew up in Washington. Her family owned no books. She and her six brothers and sisters often ate chicken backs and rice for dinner, a fact she recalls in one of her essays. "Poverty doesn't have to be a lifetime thing," she writes. "You can better yourself by going to school and getting good grades and getting a good job."

Lynn had wanted to become an English teacher more than anything. After graduating from high school, in 1976, she took a job as a government secretary instead. She raised three sons on her own, working for a plumbing company at night, a department store on weekends. As much as she could, she read Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss to her children.

In 2000, Lynn went on disability, with two bad knees and bipolar disorder. With no salary, she could no longer pay her rent, so one day she and her youngest son put their things in storage. A county housing program helped them find shelter, which meant moving from one hotel room to another.

Over the years, Lynn has filled dozens of yellow legal pads with stories, some fictional, some true, like the one about the bus trip she and a son took to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where they drove go-karts and ate crab legs. She has also written about beating breast cancer.

Now Lynn just wants a degree in English, the one she never got. Her youngest son will graduate from high school this year, and after that she doesn't want to be idle, sitting in an empty apartment with nothing to do.

In Greg's class, the soft-spoken woman often feels uncomfortable around the other students, most less than half her age. When asked to form groups, they leave her out. "Like I wasn't even there," she says.

One day their chatter is too much. Lynn packs up early. "I don't want to be here right now," she tells Greg. He understands. Later he encourages her to tune them out: "Lynn, you can do this on your own."

Sometimes Greg finds himself rooting for students, and Lynn is one of them. Not long after he collects the portfolios, she delivers the essay she didn't bring to class.

A week later, it's time for Greg to tackle the pile, page by page, line by line. Late one night, after reading Daphne four bedtime stories, he descends to the lobby of his apartment building, carrying a stack of essays and a bottle of seltzer. He sits on a couch, leaning over an essay. He moves a pencil slowly over the words, then stops.

He shakes his head—"pronoun agreement''—then reads on, head bobbing. "Yep. Cool. That's the way I like it." He turns the page. "The thesis was a little funky," he says, but not bad. A few paragraphs down, he smiles. "A beautiful sentence," he says, no random commas. He assigns a grade.

Greg doesn't want to send a student on to English 101, only for her to get a D. "That's a terrible service."

The course rubric lists 15 categories ("clear organization plan," "appropriate transitions between paragraphs"). Greg and a second instructor—sometimes a third—must rate a student's work in each category as outstanding, acceptable, or unsatisfactory. They have to tally major errors (sentence fragments, incorrect verb tenses) and minor errors (word choice, agreement). Just one check in the unsatisfactory column will keep a student in English 002.

But the rubric leaves room for judgment. Does the essay have a "clear audience and purpose"? "Unified details"? Borderline cases are tough. Greg doesn't want to send a student on to English 101, only for her to get a D. "That's a terrible service," he says. Then again, a student who fails a remedial course even once, he knows, might never return to college.

There's a third path, English 101A, a five-credit course with extra time for grammar. The downside: It costs more than a regular, three-credit course.

Greg picks up one young woman's portfolio, then sets it down. He's nervous. "She's done everything I've asked," he says. "She's worked hard. I want to validate that."

In her first essay, he says, the thesis comes out of nowhere. He decides to live with it. She repeats the main idea. The transitions are tight. "Good," he whispers. The second paragraph, full of comma errors in a previous draft, contains not one. Squinting, he rereads a puzzling sentence: "Although I hate studying, I make sure I take the time to study in moderation."

On to her second essay, he feels good about her chances. But in the in-class essay, he finds commas all over the place. Less than 450 words, it contains six major errors and 25 minor ones. He must decide. Is she ready? He imagines a future instructor seeing so many errors and marking her work with an F.

Greg looks at the blank score sheet for a moment and uncaps his pen.

Conference day comes the Tuesday before Christmas. Greg will spend two hours sitting side by side with his students, delivering good news and bad. He'll tell some they've passed into English 101 or 101A, both credit-bearing courses. Others will have to repeat.

One by one, they enter the cinder-block classroom. Everyone is supposed to turn in one last assignment. Those who don't, he has told them several times, will fail.

The first student must retake English 002. "I know it's discouraging to hear that you didn't make it," Greg tells her. To succeed in the future, he says, she needs to stop playing with her phone and socializing in class.

For students who have done especially well, he has a common refrain: "You should think of yourself as a really, really good college student." One woman runs out shrieking, "I'm going to 101!"

In the hall, everybody waits his or her turn. Many hang around to see how their friends fare: They're here on judgment day together. "I want this to be a TV show!" one woman exclaims. She bats a pair of false eyelashes and snaps her gum.

One student hops up, zips and unzips his coat, and chews on the top of the zipper. "You never know, you know?" he says. "I just hope I passed."

One student hops up, zips and unzips his coat, and chews on the top of the zipper. "I just hope I passed," he says.

A classmate emerges looking encouraged. "I passed, but I didn't pass," he says. In fact, he didn't pass, but Greg recommended that next semester he take the accelerated version of English 002, compressed into six weeks. His friends chat about the highest degree they hope to get and which Air Jordans are coming out in January.

When Dominique finds out she passed, she feels relieved but also sick to her stomach. She wishes she were going to English 101 instead of 101A. "Grammar," she says. "It was just the grammar."

Elio is happy to hear he's going to English 101A. Although he missed many classes, his essays were solid, Greg says. "I messed up this semester," Elio tells him. "Working part time is hard, and I'm not sure it's worth it."

When Lynn walks in and hears that she passed, she stops in the middle of the room. "I what?"

"You passed."

"I did?"

She's going to English 101A, too. "What a voice you have," Greg tells her. He encourages her to engage with other students. Just think, he says, you could help put at ease an anxious student who's just arrived from Ethiopia.

Tony Jones, the back-row whisperer, does not pass. One essay in his portfolio lacked a thesis; others had too many minor errors. Yet Greg praises his narrative skills, calling him a natural storyteller. "You're one of my favorite students I've had for a long time," Greg tells him. "You came a really long way." The professor urges him not to give up, vowing to help.

Kenneth Okorafor's turn hasn't come yet. He is downstairs, away from the anxious chatter, meditating. Eleven years ago, he came from Nigeria to live with his sister in Maryland. "When you're 15," he says, "there are times that you need your parents." Because they were far away, he would meditate instead.

Before that, Kenneth moved every four years, with his father's posts as an accountant in Nigerian embassies: Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia, Germany. His father, Kenneth says, grew up on a farm and pulled himself out of poverty through education and sheer will. When they were living in France, his father would go to London and return with a briefcase full of books. The man would tell his son to read them and, a week later, deliver summaries.

In Maryland, Kenneth liked high school, especially a culinary class in which the teacher told him he was good. He discovered Johnson & Wales University and thought he might study hospitality management, returning to Nigeria to open a hotel and restaurant. Then he heard how much Johnson & Wales costs.

When he graduated from high school, in 2005, he renovated houses and, later, cleaned carpets. He once took a job promoting hot sauce. But he kept thinking about college. "I just didn't want to stray away from education," he says. "That's what a lot of Africans do. They come to the United States, they work, and they become comfortable. And that's it."

The campus here is the closest college to his house, where he lives with his sister, his brother-in-law, and their four children. He enrolled at Montgomery in 2010 but sat out the next year, he says, because he showed up to register too late.

Minutes before his meeting time, Kenneth comes upstairs and takes a seat. "My heart is pumping too fast," he says.

A young woman with oversized crosses dangling from her ears encourages everybody to relax. "Just know that, whatever happens, you're smart," she says. "It just takes some people more time." Kenneth bows forward, silent, his hands together and feet flat.

"Just know that, whatever happens, you're smart," one student says. "It just takes some people more time."

His friend exits the classroom, pumping his fist. Kenneth jumps up, clasps his hand in a high-five, and slaps him on the back. "Kenneth, don't worry, man," his friend says. "I'll see you there, OK?"

Kenneth rubs his palms together. "If I pass, I get to take credit courses and move forward and not be stuck," he says. "If I fail, I'll keep on stagnating."

He starts to pace. Two more students have failed; one is crying, and the other brings her two strips of toilet paper from the bathroom.

A few minutes later, it's Kenneth's turn. He takes a seat beside Greg, who's holding his portfolio. It includes an essay about obstacles and another on poverty. The professor looks him in the eye and delivers the news: He has failed. "It was the grammar, it just wasn't clean enough," Greg tells him.

As the professor describes the accelerated version of English 002, which starts at 8 a.m., Kenneth raises his eyebrows and sighs. "I like you a lot," Greg says. "You're a great student to have in class. I really wanted you to pass."

"Yeah," Kenneth says.

"I promise you this is gonna be a bump in the road," Greg tells him. "A lot of students have to take this class more than once. You're gonna make it." Kenneth stares down at his score sheet.

"We gotta get that grammar up there a little more, and then you'll be on your way, OK, Kenneth?" Greg says. "Do what you've got to do to get past this."

"No problem," Kenneth mumbles, standing up. His head droops as he walks out. When he's gone, Greg exhales into the empty room. "That sucked," he says.

Kenneth emerges looking defeated. "Did you pass, man?" a classmate asks. "Nah," he says. He walks straight into the elevator, and the doors close.

Greg's voice is shot. He has talked to almost 20 students in a row. When he finally leaves the classroom, he's thinking about one who never showed up: Xiomara. Her portfolio was really good, he says, but if she doesn't turn in that last assignment, he can't pass her.

Hours later, walking through the cafeteria, Greg runs into Kenneth. "Dr. Wahl, I'm mad," he says, not too seriously. The professor sets his bags on a chair. I wanted you to pass, he tells him, but I didn't want you to struggle in 101. "Can't you curve it at all?" Kenneth asks. No, Greg says. Each student has to master all 15 skills.

Kenneth's face brightens as he tells Greg he's already signed up for the accelerated class. They shake hands once and then again.

Back in his office, an e-mail waits. At 10:12 a.m., Xiomara wrote to say she was too distraught to get to the campus. Her mother is in intensive care. Is there anything she can do to get credit for the class?

Greg writes back, wishing her mother well, and says Xiomara can e-mail the last assignment. He wonders if she will. He's seen self-sabotage before—students who write well only to quit at the very end.

On his bus ride home, he escapes into his headphones. He listens twice to "Don't Feel Right" by the Roots ("If you ain't speaking your life, your rhyme's adopted").

Soon he arrives at his daughter Daphne's preschool, where it's story time. He sits down on the blue rug with the children, and Daphne plunks herself in his lap. The teacher, in a rocking chair, reads a Berenstain Bears book. Mother Bear is mad because the cubs keep leaving their toys all over the place, but then Father Bear builds them storage, and everyone's happy again.

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle
Professors in remedial courses often must be social workers, too. If you take students in, Greg Wahl believes, it's your obligation to support them.

Later that night, Greg can still see the looks on his students' faces. "The few moments when it's sinking in that they didn't pass," he writes, "and I have their full attention like I've never had before." Was he kind enough? Honest enough? He thinks so.

Before he goes to sleep, Greg enters final grades for all but one of the students. Of the 25 who started, 13 have passed. Xiomara still hasn't sent her assignment.

She's been at a hospital two miles from the campus with her mother, who's had a stroke. Xiomara awoke the day before to her sister screaming, "Call 911!"

At the hospital, for days, four daughters sit by their mother's side. "School wasn't even my priority at that time," Xiomara says. A week later, when her mother first speaks, she has trouble recognizing people. But she makes steady progress and is discharged in late December.

The next morning, Xiomara e-mails Greg her last assignment, at half the expected length. He gets it just hours before final grades are due. What she's sent technically satisfies the requirement, he says. And her writing skills are strong. He passes her.

Later, he ponders that decision. In a course built for second chances, how many chances should students get?

"Am I enabling them," Greg writes in an e-mail, "by meeting this lack of effort halfway?" In some cases, he thinks, it would be cruel to punish it.

Weeks later, at the end of January, the new semester begins with an ice storm.

That week, in English 101A, Greg explains the syllabus to a roomful of students. He asks one young man about his career goals. "I want to be a surgical technician," he says. Passing this course, Greg replies, will get him closer to that goal. "How do you feel about that?" The student smiles and says, "Good!"

In the corner sits Elio, who arrived 53 minutes late after missing his bus. He's taking four classes this semester and thinking about joining the Air Force one day. He has cut back his hours at Safeway so he can concentrate on studying. "I don't want to go up to that borderline again," he says.

This semester Dominique is trying to stay on top of English 101A. It's tough, she says, but she's managing. Her long-term plan to become an accountant seems a little closer. "For the first time," she says, "I'm really excited about school."

After missing a deadline for financial aid, Lynn didn't enroll in English 101A, though she plans to in the fall. For now, she's taking a computer course at Montgomery's Rockville campus. She wants to work again, so she's learning Excel and Microsoft Word. She credits Greg with helping her feel more confident.

Tony, who had taken English 002 twice, does not try again this semester. In one of his final essays, he wrote, "Writing sucks I think but you need writing to do everything." He's no longer enrolled at Montgomery.

Xiomara knows she's lucky to have passed English 002. But because she failed developmental reading, she has to retake that class before moving on in English. She has learned how far she can let herself slide and now thinks she can stay on track. Her mother is on her case. "Right on top of me," Xiomara says. "If I don't wake up by 8, and she doesn't hear me, she'll call my phone and be like, 'Why aren't you up yet?'"

This semester Xiomara has missed only one day of class, she says, for the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl victory parade.

Kenneth still thinks about Greg's class. "I tried as hard as I could," he says, "even though I didn't understand half of the stuff he said. But I tried."

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle
"Being in a noncredit class takes a toll on you," says Kenneth Okorafor. "I feel like they put you in a corner to milk out more money."

Registering for the accelerated class was a difficult decision, not least because it starts at 8 a.m. But Kenneth wanted it. "I don't stay in a down moment for too long," he says, "that's one thing I don't do." Now he gets up at 5 to catch the 6:19 bus.

He faces challenges, like paying tuition. Because he is not a U.S. citizen, he doesn't qualify for financial aid. And on the campus, he says, distractions are constant. Outside the cafeteria, he sees students sit and talk for hours, skipping classes.

This semester Kenneth is covering the same topics all over again—verbs, commas, fragments. He knows it's important to brush up, but he's frustrated. "Being in a noncredit class takes a toll on you," he says. "I feel like they put you in a corner to milk out more money."

But giving up seems worse. A classmate in Kenneth's accelerated course keeps saying that if he doesn't pass, that's it—he's dropping out. Don't let the system beat you, Kenneth tells him. You got here, now get out.

A second chance meets students only part of the way. "You're not forced to learn," Kenneth says. "You decide if you want to learn or not."

From time to time, he talks to his father on Skype. Now retired in Nigeria, he wants to know how things are going. Kenneth tells him the same thing every time. "There are struggles, and I'll overcome it." He has never mentioned failing English 002.