A jumpstart for middle school math

Gilroy
– With a mere 26 percent of Gilroy students proficient in math,
district officials say they’re confident a $354,000 approach is
helping boost both student and teacher performance in middle
schools.
Gilroy – With a mere 26 percent of Gilroy students proficient in math, district officials say they’re confident a $354,000 approach is helping boost both student and teacher performance in middle schools.

A combination of teacher collaboration and new math software in Gilroy’s three middle schools, funded by a competitive federal grant the district received in May, is a new and innovative undertaking for the district, said Jacki Horejs, assistant superintendent of educational services.

The district’s math proficiency rates, as judged by the California Standards Test, have remained low for the past couple of years: 26 percent in 2004, 30 percent in 2003 and 23 percent in 2002. Proficiency in language arts has fared slightly better, with 33 percent in 2004 scoring proficient or advanced, the top two tiers on a five-tier scale.

“Math is a critical area, and it’s one of the areas last year where we didn’t do as well as we hoped,” said Superintendent Edwin Diaz.

Since the beginning of the school year, the district’s 22 math teachers have been meeting monthly with each other and a professor from San Jose State University. The purpose of the meetings, Horejs said, is to discuss lesson plans, communicate ideas and create a common standard to grade students’ work in the middle schools.

Another component of the grant is the $13,000 purchase and installation of a new software program for the middle schools that can be used in classrooms and computer labs. In the next few weeks, the district will order four new computers in each of the math classes at Brownell and South Valley middle schools. Ascension Solorsano Middle School opened in 2003 and was built with between four and eight new computers in each of the classrooms.

The district also purchased more, less traditional materials, such as pattern blocks to help below-grade level students who might not learn very well with paper-and-pencil assignments.

The goal of the teacher collaboration and new software is to increase student proficiency on common math assessments, including end of unit tests and problems of the month, Horejs said. The problems of the month are standards-based, open-ended questions that use different kinds of math and require students to provide explanation along with their answers.

The problems, at different levels for each grade, range from A, the easiest, to E, the most difficult. Sharon Redford, an algebra and intervention teacher at South Valley Middle School, said her seventh-graders are able to finish problems at level C, while her eighth-graders struggle with their level C problems.

“There’s really a focus on intervention,” said Valerie Kelly, a seventh grade pre-algebra teacher at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School. “Children who are not proficient have the spotlight on them 50 percent of their day. We’ve done that before, but not together like this. It’s the power of collaboration. … It really helps that all 22 teachers are hearing the same information.”

The teachers also have created their own Web pages on www.think.com, a comprehensive Web site that includes up-to-date information regarding weekly assignments for each math class, as well as links to teachers’ personal Web sites and other helpful education resources.

Yet to be tackled is the problem of eighth grade math proficiency, which is especially low in the district. There was a drop in eighth grade math standardized test scores last year, partly because some students who were enrolled in beginning algebra classes were being tested on material they had not yet covered in class, Horejs said.

Also, there might be a disconnect between what students are learning at the elementary level and versus when they enter middle school. Although the grant the district received can only be used at the middle school level, Horejs said there are plans to work more closely with elementary school teachers to better prepare students for math material in middle school.

“We’re trying to be more proactive at the elementary level,” Horejs said. “We’re closely aligning assessment with standards to see exactly where the gaps are.”

Horejs said it’s too early to tell yet if the program has made any significant changes.

“The results are mixed right now,” she said. “Some trends are up, and some trends are down. We’ll need more time to pass. We haven’t had this level of professional development … and collaboration among the three schools.”

Trustee David McRae said although both language arts and math deserve attention, math is a universal language that students need to become proficient in. He noted the level of difficulty of math standards in California, which Horejs said has one of the most demanding math standards in the country.

“It’s surprising how much we’re asking of kids mathematically today,” he said.

Want to check?

• To see your child’s weekly math assignments and up-to-date information about their teachers and classes, visit www.think.com.

• Click on the tab labeled ‘parents.’

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