December 01, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

In a little-known program at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, parents are reacquainting themselves with the finer points of linear systems and variable expressions - and finding out that algebra has come a long way since the last time they took the math class.

Those who sign up are spared homework and tests but are coming away with the confidence to help their children navigate algebraic functions. The parents also get a chance to win a nearly $100 graphing calculator.

They've discovered that while algebra still revolves around problem-solving, the questions have shifted to a more real-world application, said math teacher Kirstie Troutman, who created the parent class that she offers over three Wednesday nights each semester.

Troutman said that rather than having students - and parents - mull over equations for the sake of equations, she has them work up solutions to everyday problems, such as comparing two cellular phone packages, using algebraic formulas to determine which will yield the best deal.

"It has changed that much in just five years," said Troutman, who has taught algebra for eight years.

She said the shift in teaching algebra was fueled by the introduction of the state high school assessments, which brought a greater emphasis on reading and writing.

"Reading and writing is a huge part of mathematics now, no matter what level you're at," she said. "Some [parents] have a mindset that it should be very traditional algebra. If that was their strong point [in school], and they just come back to review it, they ask, `Why doesn't my child have to memorize this?' and, `Why doesn't my child have to do that?'"

The parents are surprised to learn that the state gives students the formulas, such as those for area, volume and simple interest, to use in class and on tests.

"Every student gets [a reference sheet]. They just have to use it," she said. "And that makes perfect sense. ... If you had to find the area of something, are you going to do it because you remember it from high school or are you going to look it up on the Internet? ... We need to teach kids how to use the tools that are available to them."

Troutman, also the school's cheerleading coach, keeps things lively during her classes by using an occasional cheer to reinforce a particular concept, such as one about how to remember the definitions of mean, median and mode.

"When I say `mean,' you say `average,'" she says as she leads the parent group in a cheer during class. "When I say `median,' you say `middle.' ... When I say `mode,' you say `most.'"

Parents praised Troutman's teaching methods and wished they could keep coming back.

"She makes it fun," said Mary Inouye, 46, a parent from Westminster whose son is in ninth grade at Winters Mill. "She has all kinds of different ways to explain things that make it easy."

Inouye said she signed up for the class so she could help her son with his homework.

"When I check his work, I know what I'm looking for," she said. "Becoming familiar with [the terminology] has helped."

Lorena Ramirez, 36, said she has been able to remind her ninth-grade daughter of the right equations to use.

"I can explain to her how she needs to do it," the Westminster parent said.

Troutman assures parents that they don't have to be experts in math to help their children.

"They don't have to know or understand everything to be able to encourage their child," she said. "They can encourage their child to ask for help" with anything they can't figure out at home.

Bill and Joy Garvey, who have a son in ninth grade, said the class has helped to refresh their math skills.

"It helped us understand the vocabulary," said Joy Garvey, 44, of Westminster. "If he comes to us with a problem, we can suggest methods to try" to solve it.

This semester, the school added a session on geometry at a parent's suggestion. Both classes will be offered in the spring, Troutman said.

While the class could seat up to 30 parents, only six enrolled this semester.

After all, "It's still algebra," Troutman said.

She assures parents that the classes are meant to help them see what their children are learning.

The algebra workshop, she said, is a chance for them to ask questions, especially "the big one: Why do I have to buy this $100 [graphing] calculator?"

On the last night of this semester's algebra course, at least one parent didn't have to ask that question.

In a random drawing, a slip of paper with Joy Garvey's name on it was pulled from a jar.

"Now I get to go home and play with another piece of electronic equipment I still don't know how to use," she said of the calculator. Students are allowed to use it to solve algebraic functions in class and on state assessment tests.

Always the math teacher, Troutman wondered aloud whether she should have had the parents calculate the probability that one of the Garveys - who made up two-fifths of that evening's class - would win the calculator.