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School District 65’s math program is strong and getting better, said Suzanne Farrand, Curriculum Coordinator for School District 65, at the School Board’s April 5 meeting.

In the past few years, Ms. Farrand said, there has been an emphasis on instructing students through a problem-solving approach and an increased emphasis on algebra, and the District began to offer eighth-graders the option to take geometry in the middle schools, rather than at Evanston Township High School.

In a summary report on the District’s math program that she presented to the Board, Ms. Farrand focused on math in the middle schools.

Focus on Problem Solving

The District adopted new standards-based textbooks for the middle schools in 2008-09: Everyday Mathematics, the Connected Math Project (CMP) and the Math Thematics (MT). Since teachers had different viewpoints on which text was best for students, the District is engaged in a four-year pilot program in which Chute Middle School is using Everyday Math and MT, Haven is using MT, and Bessie Rhodes, King Lab and Nichols are using CMT.

Ms. Farrand said the texts all have similar content, and all are designed with an instructional approach in which students do mathematics and problem-solving in the classroom, rather than watch the teacher demonstrate math or lecture at the front of the classroom. The texts are also designed to develop skills in higher-order problems, not just drills, she said.

Haven Middle School teacher Paula Zelinski said she taught math for 17 years and used to stand at the board and have students model after her. “Now, the teacher is not the focus, students are the focus,” she said.

Another teacher said, “Students are growing in math and doing things we never imagined they could do.”

Ms. Farrand said teachers’ satisfaction with all of the texts being piloted appears to be high, and that there was no consistent difference in student achievement between the texts. She said the plan was to evaluate the texts at the end of the 2011-12 school year and determine whether all schools should adopt the same text.

Tyrone Martinez-Black, math facilitator, said, “The distinction between the texts is so small. It’s the instruction that makes the difference.” He said the focus should be on “how well we’re working with children.”

Algebra – Accelerate or Not

Ms. Farrand said there is increased emphasis on algebra in the middle schools, with 298 students enrolled in Honors Algebra this year. One issue, she said, is parents are becoming more concerned that their children be accelerated into Honors Algebra in the seventh grade. She said a premature focus on algebra does not serve most students well.

She said the reason for accelerating seventh grade students into Honors Algebra is to enable those students to take two years of calculus at the high school. She said, however, many students who are accelerated do not go on to take four years of math. Taking algebra in eighth grade is sufficient to enable students to take one year of calculus in high school, which is the standard for admission to a science, technology, engineering or mathematics program in college.

She said, “One of the things that we are thinking now is that except for those kids that are destined for two years of calculus, maybe spending more time in CMP or mathematics where more fundamental proportional reasoning is being built at grade seven, and Honors Algebra at eighth grade, is actually a more desirable path for more kids than we would have perhaps thought in the past.” She added, however, that they had no intention to change the criteria to accelerate into Honors Algebra.

Several parents offered other reasons to take Honors Algebra on an accelerated basis. One parent said students may go onto to take other math courses or enroll in the chem/phys program at the high school, rather than taking two calculus courses. Seth Lichter said some students were taking accelerated classes because they were “bored silly” in the classroom.

Ms. Farrand said one thing teachers would look at this summer is whether a contemporary textbook for 1 Algebra Honors should be adopted. She said the current textbook was 20 years old. She said the District would collaborate with ETHS on this and other issues.

Ubi, Ubi Geometry?

For many years, District 65 offered eighth graders the opportunity to take Honors Geometry at ETHS. In 2008-09 the District began offering eighth graders the option of taking Honors Geometry at their middle school if enough students signed up to do so. This year, 76 students are taking Honors Geometry at ETHS, and 12 students are taking it at Haven and 10 at Chute.

When asked if the District planned to consolidate the geometry program at the middle schools, Ms. Farrand said, “I have no grand plan. …My vision is, I think we can teach geometry in the middle schools, and I think that’s where it belongs long term. Are we ready for that now, I don’t know. I see no reason why we can’t teach it exclusively in the middle schools.”

Superintendent Hardy Murphy quickly added, though, “There’s not a lurking plan out there to close an option to go to the high school.”

While touting the geometry program offered at the middle schools, administrators did not mention a problem with the geometry program at Haven until it was brought up by Board member Tracy Quattrocki. She said she had received calls from Haven parents who were very critical of the geometry program at Haven.

Haven School Principal Kathleen Roberson acknowledged there was a problem with the geometry program in the first half of the year. She added, though, that she brought in a new teacher and the problem was “corrected, remediated and, hopefully, we feel strongly they’re on a good track now.”

Ms. Quattrocki also said the Board should consider the cost implications of offering small geography classes at the middle schools, and that the Board should evaluate whether to consolidate the program at ETHS as a cost saving measure. She added that for the most part, parents and students were happy with the geography program at ETHS. In light of that she questioned why the District was diverting some of its best teachers to teach geometry at the middle schools, when it could devote its resources to students whose needs were not being met.

Dr. Murphy said the District would save money if the geometry program were consolidated at either ETHS or D65. He said ETHS charged a flat fee of $30,000 to provide geometry for District 65 students, and the District paid $40,000 for busing. The cost to provide three classes of geometry at District 65 would be $30,000, he said.

Dr. Murphy added that he thought offering geometry at the middle schools was important because it would enhance instruction at the middle schools.

Board member Katy Bailey said she supported providing geometry at both the middle schools and ETHS because it provided a choice for parents. She said she was not comfortable evaluating the placement of the program solely on a cost basis.

Several parents and one student spoke in favor of keeping geometry at ETHS, saying it provided a challenging and stimulating experience and a way to become acculturated to the high school.