Algebra for All

This Bronx elementary school is changing the way it teaches math — and it’s showing results

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Fifth-grade students at P.S. 294 in the Bronx were immersed in math problems when Chalkbeat reporter Christina Veiga visited in March.

Fifth-grader Darmairys Henriquez used a green marker to write her answer to a math problem on a big poster board. Her classmates at P.S. 294 stopped by in small gaggles to take a look at her work.

The question: 3 + 6 – 2 x 4.

The students were learning how to use grouping and the order of operations to solve a math equation, but it would be at least 30 minutes before teacher Nicole Lent would stand in front of the class and reveal the answer.

This approach is part of a citywide effort to make sure all students pass algebra by the end of ninth grade — paving the way for college and high-demand careers.

In 67 elementary schools across the city, including P.S. 294, fifth-grade math instruction has been “departmentalized” just like in middle or high school. Instead of sticking with the same classroom teacher for every subject — reading, writing, math and science — students have a teacher responsible only for math instruction.

The idea behind the city’s Algebra for All initiative is to have the most dedicated and effective teachers focus on this critical subject area, an approach backed by research.

“There’s still a lot of anxiety among elementary teachers about teaching math, and they still cling to the textbook,” said Clara Hemphill, who coauthored a report about math anxiety for the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “One way to break through that is for an elementary school to pick a teacher who really loves math and [have him or her] teach all the students in fifth grade.”

With a solid foundation in elementary school, the city hopes students will be ready to tackle math in middle school — and higher-level courses such as calculus in high school.

“It is a building block for college readiness,” said Matt Larson, president of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

P.S. 294 in the Bronx has embraced the model, with specialized math teachers in not just fifth grade, but starting in third grade. One teacher serves as a coach for her fellow math instructors, allowing the strongest teachers to share what works and problem-solve when lessons go wrong.

Along with departmentalization, P.S. 294 launched a whole new way of teaching math, using a method that encourages students to engage in discussions the same way they might debate literary themes in a book club.

“In a lot of schools, literacy takes the forefront,” said Principal Daniel Russo. “What we do here is try to build the strongest, most inquisitive, abstract mathematicians we can.”

First, students try a problem on their own, and then debate it with their classmates, defending their answers or changing their minds entirely based on the input of their peers.

With her classmates gathered around, Darmairys began her defense: “So what I did was I added,” she said, describing her approach. She added parentheses around one part of the equation so it read 3 + (6-2) x 4.

“I got a total of 28,” she said. “I’m ready for questions and comments.”

That was the cue for her classmates to jump in. A boy who came to a different answer — 1 — was the first to speak up.

“You were supposed to just get 1, because you didn’t really need parentheses,” he said. “I thought it was just simple. You were just supposed to add.”

Lent had been floating around the room with a clipboard, but now she stopped by Darmairys’s group to listen in. She asked a few leading questions, like “Do I really need parentheses?” But Lent stopped short of providing any answers, even when her students came up with wrong responses. (The answer, by the way, was 1).

Instead, the students were left to explore the possible solutions and methods together. Eventually, one boy noticed his classmates came to different conclusions depending on where they placed their parentheses in the equation.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students in Nicole Lent’s fifth-grade math class at P.S. 294 debate the correct way to solve a problem.

From the outside, Lent’s teaching seemed largely invisible. But everything was carefully curated, from the type of problem students were asked to solve to the students who were asked to present their particular approaches.

“It’s a lot of thinking on your feet,” she said. “You’re always looking for what is going to bring the most discussion.”

Class had started with a problem that was intentionally different from anything they had seen before. Lent looked over their shoulders as they worked, marking on her clipboard groups of students who used different strategies to come to different conclusions. Next she chose students to present their work, picking those who had some parts correct but demonstrated different misconceptions.

Lent said this kind of teaching “did not happen overnight.” But she “always felt more comfortable” teaching math, and passionate about sharing it with students.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teacher Nicole Lent breaks down the different strategies students in her fifth grade class used to solve a math problem.

P.S. 294 was already using the model, along with “departmentalized” math teachers, when the city announced its Algebra for All initiative. The school joined the program to take advantage of extra training and resources. Teachers involved in Algebra for All receive at least 17 days of training, and P.S. 294 landed a city grant to pay for materials and professional development sessions tailored to the school’s needs after Lent noticed teachers needed help teaching fractions and algebra. Lent said the trainings were instrumental.

“It changed my way of thinking,” she said. “I always thought you had to teach the easiest way to just get an answer, and that is not the case. It really opened up my mind to thinking about the how and why.”

P.S. 294 overhauled its math instruction three years ago and “departmentalized” last year for the first time. Their first round of test results suggest the new approach is paying off.

In Lent’s class, 23 percent of students have a disability, 35 percent are current or former English Language Learners and 29 percent live in temporary housing. Another 19 percent have repeated a grade.

Yet the school’s students outperformed city and district averages on last year’s state math tests, with 53 percent of students passing, compared with 40 percent across the city. Students who are learning English — typically among the lowest-performing subgroup — improved their scores by 9 percentage points.

In the high-stakes environment that schools operate under, Russo hopes schools like his will encourage other principals to try new approaches to math. He understands the pressures well: P.S. 294 opened in the place of a school that was phased-out after struggling for more than a decade.

“If I don’t know for sure that this model is going to push my scores and my children, I’m afraid to try it, because I have so much to lose,” he said. “I think that when the Algebra for All schools come out with some data that’s trending a little bit stronger, that will pique the interest of more schools.”

Russo admits it takes the right teachers and leaders to make an approach like theirs work. The Department of Education has made departmentalization optional at elementary schools. So far, about 400 teachers across the city have gotten professional training to encourage the same kind of strategies that are in place at P.S. 294.

“We’re really focused on helping teachers understand the content and giving teachers … strategies to teach the content,” said Carol Mosesson-Teig, senior director of mathematics for the department. “We want to make sure that kids have a sense that they belong they belong in the math classroom.”

PAYOUT

Douglas County district pays $1.3 million to settle landmark special education case

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The Douglas County School District has paid $1.32 million to settle a long-running special education case brought by a couple who sought reimbursement from the district for their son’s education at a private school for students with autism.

The payment, made to the law firm representing the couple in May, represents the last chapter in a landmark special education case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case lasted for seven years, leading to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that raised the standard schools must meet in educating students with disabilities.

“The settlement really just eliminates any uncertainty there may have been about the importance of the Endrew F. decision,” said Meghan Whittaker, policy and advocacy manager for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

She expects the settlement to spur greater awareness about the higher standard and increased public investment in educating students with disabilities.

Jennifer and Joe, the parents of Endrew F., the student at the center of the case, declined to comment on the settlement when reached by email this week.

In February, they said their attorney had reached out to school district officials numerous times over the years with offers to talk and potentially settle the case out of court, but that the district rejected those overtures.

Chalkbeat requested the 2-page settlement agreement under the Colorado Open Records Act, but district officials declined to provide it, citing a confidentiality agreement between the two parties.

The seeds of the Endrew F. case were planted about a decade ago when Jennifer and Joe pulled Endrew, then a fourth-grader, out of his Douglas County elementary school after years of stalled educational progress. They placed him at a specialized school in Denver — Firefly Autism House — where they saw immediate improvements. Tuition at the school is more than $70,000 a year.

In 2011, Jennifer and Joe sued the school district for tuition reimbursement, arguing that Endrew had not received a fair and appropriate education in Douglas County schools as required by federal law. Three courts ruled against the family before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout the case, Jennifer and Joe asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy.

While the unanimous 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a momentous decision with enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country, it kicked the question of whether the district should repay the family for years of private school back to the lower court.

In February, a federal judge ruled that the district owed the family for tuition and legal costs. According to district officials, the district reached an agreement for the $1.32 million payment on April 19 with the school board’s authority. The money came out of the district’s general fund.

In recent months, public and private groups have released new resources to help school district leaders and parents understand and act on the Endrew F. decision. In December, the U.S. Department of Education put out a nine-page Q&A on the topic.

In early 2018, the National Center for Learning Disabilities put out the Endrew F. Advocacy Toolkit for parents. The downloadable toolkit, which has been accessed 30,000 times so far, outlines the process for advocating for students with disabilities and improving their individualized learning plans.

Whittaker said the Endrew F. settlement signals to both parents and school officials the importance of working together to craft such plans.

“The focus here needs to not be on future cases and parents suing school districts but providing students with the services they need now,” she said.

Read more about Joe and Jennifer’s long journey to the Supreme Court here and their frustration at being portrayed as a school choice success story by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos here.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.