Algebra for All

In first ‘Algebra for All’ effort, city will push schools to centralize fifth grade math

In a change that could shift the way elementary schools work across New York City, officials want more fifth-graders to learn math from teachers chosen to focus on the subject, rather than their general classroom teachers.

The city will begin centralizing fifth-grade math next year at interested schools, according to a memo sent to principals this week, and will spread the policy further over the next five years. That memo and other documents posted online for principals describe the change as the first step in the city’s campaign to make sure more eighth-graders are prepared for algebra, a goal Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled last fall.

“We know this initiative is a big step forward,” an education department document reads, “and are working to develop both the operational and instructional supports schools will need to be successful.”

At most of the city’s elementary schools, core subjects like reading and math are taught by the same classroom teachers. In the memo, officials asked interested principals to designate fifth-grade teachers to take on the central math role for their grade.

Some researchers say quality of math instruction increases with a designated teacher, especially since many elementary-level teachers aren’t excited about math or don’t feel prepared to teach it.

“It’s almost like people who are afraid of math flock to elementary school education,” said Clara Hemphill, one of the authors of a 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs that called for more intensive math teaching in fifth grade.

The introduction of the Common Core standards have added to the complexity of the task. Last year, about 41 percent of city fifth-graders the state’s math exam. Meanwhile, recent statistics show that few are prepared for upper-level math by the time they reach high school.

“With the Common Core, we’re expecting more mathematics understanding from teachers, and this enables districts to focus resources,” said Diane Briars, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“Departmentalizing” math allows teachers with math anxiety to focus on other subjects, Hemphill said, and leaves those passionate about math to teach it. That’s what happened at the Girls Prep charter schools when they separated math instruction, according to Ian Rowe, the leader of the Public Prep charter school network.

“The folks who are our dedicated math teachers love the fact that they can really dive deep and really focus on not just procedural math but really getting our scholars critical thinking skills in math,” he said.

Some schools have long used or experimented with more specialized approaches. P.S. 183 Robert L. Stevenson and the Lower Lab School, both on the Upper East Side, have separate math instruction, Hemphill said.

Others were surprised that this would be the city’s move to improve math instruction.

Darlene Cameron, principal of STAR Academy-P.S. 63 in the East Village, said she would have questions about placing the responsibility for a grade’s math instruction in the hands of a single teacher, especially since so many students are already far behind when they reach fifth grade.

“Are people looking at the fifth-graders we have today? Many of them are still working on basic, single-digit multiplication,” she said.

It’s unclear how many schools the city would like to include in the new plan. Education department officials said the training would be research-based and that schools can choose to participate.

According to the posted overview of the initial “Algebra for All” initiatives, the first wave of participating teachers will have three days of training this spring, 12 days of training over the summer, and sessions throughout next school year.

To Courtney Allison, the deputy director of Math for America and a former sixth-grade teacher, encouraging schools to departmentalize fifth-grade math is a smart idea that could help make sure students arrive prepared for middle school.

“It’s exciting to see them turn their attention to mathematics,” she said of the city.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.