April 26, 2002|By Sandy Kelman

ALGEBRA. In my experience you love it, hate it, or fear it.

I just happen to love it. The order, the logic, the formulas, the set patterns -- oh, the beauty of this ancient mathematical process.

In Maryland, according to a recent study, not being proficient in using algebra has become a hindrance to succeeding at the community college level.

About 10 years ago, I took the math placement exam for a city community college.

On my first try, I narrowly missed placing in the intermediate algebra course.

I was encouraged to come back and try again. I headed to my local library, took out an algebra practice book, studied it, reviewed what I knew, retook the placement test and scored high enough to enroll in that course.

I needed those math credits to fulfill state requirements for certification in early childhood education.

Just as I was fortunate to have a top-notch algebra teacher in high school, I also was blessed to have an excellent teacher at the community college.

While it had been nearly 30 years since I had last taken algebra, it still fascinated me.

I went to every class, studied every night and got an "A" in the course.

Not everyone comes to a community college placement test or to an algebra class with the advantages I had.

Imagine the students who were in an algebra class a few years ago taught by a "surplus" home economics teacher I met.

She acknowledged that algebra was an alien subject to her and that she felt totally unprepared for teaching math.

If the chance of someone entering a community college depends on their knowledge of mathematics, do we have the cadre of qualified teachers necessary to teach high school algebra as well as its preliminaries?

Should we be considering that the criteria for math skill level be as diversified as the plans students hold for their futures?

My older son struggled to pass a community college algebra course.

Now if only he could learn to balance his bank account!

My younger son, the finance/math/logistics college graduate, learned to calculate negative numbers when he was 5 years old.

Anyone familiar with algebra knows the importance of being able to compute with negative numbers.

Let's just hope success at the community college or college level doesn't hinge on a negative supply of those who can teach the higher level math classes as well as on recognizing that, from kindergarten through high school, we all have different needs and abilities when it comes to learning math.

Sandy Kelman teaches math at the Maryland School for the Blind and is a free-lance writer. She lives in Pikesville.