Math teacher's hours of coaching add up to success for Pa. calculus students

December 09, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- "People think of me as a nerd -- or a fanatic," says Remo Ciccone, 39, a teacher of calculus at Henderson Senior High School in West Chester, where he puts in an average of 70 hours a week.

Having trouble with an equation or theorem? See Mr. Ciccone after school. Got a football practice or band rehearsal after school? No sweat. Drop by after your commitment or on your lunch hour or during study hall. The connoisseur of calc is always there, haunting the classrooms and hallways in a manner that suggests to students that they can run, but they can't hide.

"He's got a reputation," said 17-year-old senior Andrew Brandon. "He's tough."

As U.S. students fall further behind their global counterparts in science and mathematics, you can think of Mr. Ciccone, a bachelor who lives with his parents and devotes nearly every waking hour to teaching, as a one-man task force against the math gap.

His obsessive efforts have paid off. The 10 students whom Mr. Ciccone trained to take the Advanced Placement calculus test administered by the College Board of the Educational Testing Service in May all passed, with seven earning perfect scores.

Compared with statewide scores -- fewer than 70 percent of Pennsylvania test-takers passed, and only 22 percent achieved perfection -- the Henderson performance was world-class, said Jim Armstrong, principal assembler of the calculus exam for the ETS.

"I worked them as hard as any students in the nation," said Mr. Ciccone, a demanding but soft-spoken man, a round figure in a glen-plaid suit, white shirt, dark tie and mustache. "It was painful. But I formed them into the team they had to be to conquer that test."

This year, Mr. Ciccone is preparing 20 students to take the exam, which is attempted by fewer than 2 percent of high school seniors nationwide.

For graduating seniors faced with skyrocketing college tuition, advanced placement credit can mean a savings of time and money. And even though honor students may not use calculus after college, the discipline, developed by Isaac Newton in the 18th century to explain planetary motion, is widely regarded as calisthenics for the mind.

Because calculus develops "logical thinking skills," Mr. Ciccone said, it can be applied to all disciplines.

Then, too, there is the intangible boost to self-esteem that comes from mastering high school's hardest subject.

"Bring the power upstairs," Mr. Ciccone barks to his students, explaining how to factor equations that include coefficients. The phrase, which he uses repeatedly in the classroom, seems equally apt to describe the development of young minds.

Consciously styled in the image of Jaime Escalante, the tirelessly inspirational math teacher profiled in the movie "Stand and Deliver" and in the book "The Best Teacher in America," Mr. Ciccone is living testament to a radical premise: Set impossibly high standards, and students will rise to meet them. Although some students may sink initially under the pressure, passion and dedication can work miracles.

It is a rule Mr. Ciccone lives by, leaving home in Upper Darby, just outside Philadelphia, at 6:45 a.m. to be in homeroom in West Chester by 7:30, skipping lunch to put problems on the chalkboard for his afternoon class, staying after school until 7 or 8 to tutor students who play sports or have jobs, and keeping sharp at Villanova University by teaching college students one night a week.

To mold 20 individuals into a cohesive unit with a stake in group success, Mr. Ciccone buys and distributes T-shirts inscribed "Henderson Math Team. We're -e to pi to the i" (a mathematical expression equal to 1 in polar coordinates).

He estimates that he spent $2,000 out of pocket last year on test preparation materials, including advanced review texts not included in the math department's workbook budget, and on $5 registration fees for each student who signed up for the exam.

He expects a lot in return, asking students to spend as much as two hours a night on homework and quizzing them regularly. On the multiple-choice section of the advanced placement exam, students have 90 minutes to complete 45 questions. On Mr. Ciccone's regular quizzes, they have 45 minutes to answer 35 questions.

Asked whether he "teaches to the test" -- coaching students to perform well on standardized exams without concern for genuine learning -- Mr. Ciccone had a ready reply.

The high scores his calculus students achieved on the "free-response" section of the advanced placement exam, in which the approach to solutions counts as much as right answers, showed that they understood fundamental principles, he said.

Students having difficulty in Mr. Ciccone's class know they can take home a videotaped demonstration of solutions to problems. Mr. Ciccone -- who shares the last name of rock star Madonna and wonders whether they're related -- records the tapes in his spare time at his own expense. "She has MTV. I've got Math TV," he said.

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