If X equals success, middle-schoolers have 2X in algebra

Severna Park

October 20, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Typically, algebra is a ninth-grade course - but more children at Severna Park Middle School took the course than at any other middle school in Maryland last year, school officials said. And all of its algebra students have passed the algebra component of the state's High School Assessment for the past three years.

Those achievements drew a visit to the school yesterday from Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools.

"It's just amazing, when we have high expectations for students, how they have responded," she said after her tour.

Increased participation and improved mathematics performance for middle school is one of Superintendent Eric J. Smith's goals for the school system. The hope is that by 2007, 45 percent of all eighth-graders will pass algebra.

In the 2002-2003 school year, about 21 percent of eighth-graders countywide met that objective and 29 percent had passed the class last school year, said schools spokesman Jonathan Brice. Also last year, the number of middle-schoolers taking the High School Assessment in algebra more than doubled, to 2,712.

This year, more than 400 children at Severna Park Middle School are enrolled in 13 sections of algebra I and four sections of geometry.

"It says what an incredible job teachers in middle schools are doing with a much broader audience in their classrooms," said Joy Donlin, acting coordinator of mathematics.

Severna Park might have a head start. The school draws from some of the county's wealthiest neighborhoods and has a small percentage of children from low-income backgrounds. In addition, it has more than 1,300 children, so the school can juggle schedules to accommodate different skill levels in ways that smaller schools might not, said school board member Paul G. Rudolph, who also attended the tour.

Dispelling myths

But the school still had to battle against the notion that algebra at the middle-school level was only for the "elite, the very brightest," said Principal Sharon Morell. Teachers agreed to be available during their lunch periods and after school to support the pupils.

"Once we had so many children sign up for algebra, the key was to make them successful," she said.

Leslie Cowing, chairwoman of the school's Citizens Advisory Committee, has twins in eighth grade who take algebra. She pointed out several benefits to taking the class in middle school.

For example, all middle school children in algebra have the class five days a week for 86 minutes; high school students meet as a class every other day. In addition, middle-schoolers receive honors credit for this course, as well as for geometry.

Anne Arundel schools use standardized exams such as the fifth-grade Maryland School Assessment tests to identify children for advanced courses in sixth grade so they'll be ready for algebra by seventh or eighth grade, Donlin said.

"Often we underidentified students who were capable," she said. Given the HSA scores, however, "it was obvious their success was just as great."

Staff development also focuses on providing instruction that "stretches kids," Donlin added.

Many middle-schoolers are ready for the challenge of algebra, said Debi Albright, who has taught mathematics for 18 years. "By the time they get to middle school, a lot of these kids have their basics down," she said.

Clearing the way

Taking the classes as middle-schoolers clears the way for the kids to pursue higher levels of mathematics in high school, Grasmick and Smith said.

If they continue to take math courses, "they'll have all of that behind them before they set foot on a [college] campus," Albright said.

"Your school, it's a model for the state," Grasmick told eighth-graders in Albright's geometry class. The children had taken the HSA's algebra component last year.

Nearly all raised their hands when asked whether they believed they would pass the geometry portion of the Maryland School Assessment. They required prompting, however, when Grasmick asked pupils for a show of hands of those who love math.

"You'll probably be in those calculus courses as 10th-graders," Smith told the class.

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