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Bremerton schools hope new curriculum, strategies will equal higher math scores

Esquire Hills Elementary School first-grader Nathan Fletcher, 6, works in his Math Connects workbook following a group activity. Both the Central Kitsap and Bremerton school districts adopted Math Connects for kindergarten through  fifth grade. School officials and teachers say it’s easier to use than the former curriculum choice, Everyday Math. - Christopher Carter/staff photo
Esquire Hills Elementary School first-grader Nathan Fletcher, 6, works in his Math Connects workbook following a group activity. Both the Central Kitsap and Bremerton school districts adopted Math Connects for kindergarten through fifth grade. School officials and teachers say it’s easier to use than the former curriculum choice, Everyday Math.
— image credit: Christopher Carter/staff photo

Schools in Central Kitsap and Bremerton are switching out textbooks, changing the way teachers teach and keeping a closer eye on students all to raise suffering math scores.

The 2009-2010 school year marked a turning point for both districts as they combined new curriculum, better technology and new ways to closer track student progress.

This was also the first year students in grades three through eight took the Measurements of Student Progress exam, the replacement for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

Preliminary reports show math scores continue to fall behind those of reading and writing.

“This state has done well with its reading and writing curriculum,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn in a statement. “We’ve got to raise math to that level.”

He also said outlook for the class of 2013 doesn’t look much better.

“We will expect more than 90 percent of the class of 2013 to be proficient in math by the time they reach graduation. I’m not confident that will happen.”

District results were not available at press time.

The effort to raise weak standardized test scores — only half of Central Kitsap’s sophomores and 26 percent of Bremerton’s met the standard for math in 2009 — starts in elementary school.

For Amy Coulter’s first-graders at Esquire Hills Elementary School in Central Kitsap, math class might look a little different compared to the experiences of this year’s graduating seniors.

“Rigor is really important at this stage,” Coulter said. “We want to catch them as they are falling in (the cracks)so we can pick them back up.”

Coulter spends an hour and a half daily with her students teaching math.

“If I can build a really strong foundation, I’ve done my job,” she said.

Historically low scores may be attributed to a lack of an early emphasis on math in the classroom, school officials say.

Catherine Pitcher, Central Kitsap School District elementary mathematics curriculum specialist, said an unbalanced emphasis on writing and reading in elementary schools factors into lower math scores.

She said many elementary teachers have stronger backgrounds in subject areas other than math, a possible reason why less time is spent teaching math basics.

“There are literacy people in elemantary schools, not a lot of mathy people end up there,” she said.

She said she has been lobbying for a greater emphasis but without much success.

“I’ve been pushing for it,” she said. “(It has) kind of fallen on deaf ears.”

She said students across the country are falling behind those in other countries like Taiwan, India and Finland.

“It would be interesting to see where we stand on a national level,” she said.

District administrators — and teachers, too — think the books they’re using add to the problem.

Both school districts have used Everyday Mathematics as their curriculum of choice in their elementary schools for nearly 15 years.

The books met criticism from teachers and parents who claimed that they didn’t spend enough time on individual topics and were too difficult to understand without a teacher’s explanation, making it nearly impossible for parents to help their children with homework. The books used in the both the districts’ secondary schools had the same problem.

Anna Robinson, a 9th-grader at Central Kitsap Junior High School, said the current math textbook she’s using is not conducive to learning on one’s own.

“It needs to be taught very well by the teacher,” she said, adding that she counts herself lucky to have a teacher that takes extra time to make sure all students are on track during classroom discussions.

Outside the classroom though, it’s a lot tougher.

“It’s sometimes difficult to learn by reading the book,” she said.

A classmate of Robinson’s, Richard LaVoie, called the book “clueless,” adding that his father, an engineer, has trouble understanding the examples.

“It’s kind of iffy,” he said.

The districts agree.

Now, both districts are bringing in new curriculum.

Central Kitsap and Bremerton have already adopted, and are using, Math Connects for kindergarten through 5th grade. They have adopted and will begin using Holt — and Algebraic Thinking for Bremerton’s middle school — in its secondary schools beginning next year.

Coulter is using Math Connects with her first-graders and said she’s already noticing a difference. Through trimester assessments, Coulter said she believes 90 percent of her students are already at or above standard. They will take their first Measurements of Student Progress exam in third grade.

Although some teachers and administrators had been frustrated with Everyday Math for years, it wasn’t until a new set of state standards released in 2008 that the districts saw a need to change.

Karen Jensen, math teacher at Central Kitsap Junior High School, said she and her colleagues were surprised by how poorly Everyday Math — met the new standards set by the state.

“We came from way behind here,” she said. “(We) didn’t realize how far behind we were.”

Pitcher said close to 75 percent of the new standards were not adequately covered by the text books the district was using.

As both Bremerton and Central Kitsap integrate the new curriculum, classroom techniques are also changing with the times.

The days of learning by watching the teacher complete a problem in front of the class while students scramble to take notes, are being phased out, Jensen said.

Instead, math has become a group activity.

For an hour and a half, Coulter’s first graders aren’t students — they’re mathematicians. She addresses them as such as they sit on the floor as a group and count out money.

They spend an hour taking turns using a wood wand and an interactive touch-screen whiteboard to visually count out the costs of various pieces of candy and toys while classmates count aloud.

Over at Central Kitsap Junior High, Robinson and LaVoie work in groups of three or four to correct homework, calculate real-life math applications called investigations and even take collaborative quizzes.

At schools in the Bremerton School District, teachers and administrators are testing out new methods of keeping students from falling in the cracks and being left behind.

At Bremerton’s Mountainview Middle School, students struggling in their math classes are enrolled in “enrichment” classes — essentially another period of math, said Bremerton School District Assistant Superintendent Linda Jenkins.

This year is the first time the school is tracking student progress on a weekly basis. The students in each math class at every grade level are given a test reviewing the week’s work. The scores are returned to the students, along with a graph mapping their progress. Every four and a half weeks the students are given benchmark assessments ensuring they retain the material.

It’s a new tactic for the district, and Jenkins said she wants to see it at Bremerton High School soon.

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