School’s math plan adds up

Pri­mary grades’ strat­egy en­gages stu­dents, teach­ers and fam­i­lies — and is get­ting re­sults

Waterloo Region Record - - FRONT PAGE - Jeff Outhit, Record staff

CAM­BRIDGE — Stu­dents sound con­fi­dent at the school that for­got how to do math. It’s a good sign.

“I like math be­cause it chal­lenges me; and I like be­ing chal­lenged be­cause that’s when I find math is more fun,” said eight-year-old Bray­den Hud­son at St. Peter Catholic El­e­men­tary School.

“I like that it chal­lenges my brain,” added class­mate Ad­di­son Couck­uyt, also eight. “Some­times it’s a lit­tle bit tricky for me.”

But when she fig­ures out a prob­lem, “I feel proud of my­self that I did it.”

As math pro­fi­ciency fal­ters across the prov­ince, St. Peter is im­prov­ing by en­gag­ing stu­dents, teach­ers and fam­i­lies — sup­ported by a $60-mil­lion pro­vin­cial strat­egy launched last year across the boards.

There was much room to im­prove af­ter the school tum­bled to among On­tario’s worst at math. By 2013 only one in four Grade 3 stu­dents met the pro­vin­cial math stan­dard (a B grade) over three years, put­ting St. Peter in the bot­tom two per cent of schools based on stan­dard­ized tests. In 2016 just one Grade 6 stu­dent achieved the pro­vin­cial stan­dard, a re­sult again in the bot­tom two per cent.

To­day, af­ter steady gains, al­most half of Grade 3 stu­dents meet the pro­vin­cial math stan­dard over three years. Grade 6 stu­dents are still strug­gling, with fewer than one in three achiev­ing the math stan­dard over three years. The school was only able to turn one weak Grade 3 stu­dent into a strong Grade 6 stu­dent in 2017.

The small school on Av­enue Road, with 250 stu­dents, is in an area where more chil­dren live in poverty and al­most no par­ents went to univer­sity, school de­mo­graph­ics show. These two fac­tors link to lower stu­dent achieve­ment, re­search shows.

“The big­gest chal­lenge is to have school at the fore­front of ev­ery­body’s mind when they go home,” prin­ci­pal De­bra Cur­tis said.

The school has worked to en­gage par­ents, by news­let­ter, by invit­ing par­ent coun­cil mem­bers to try math prob­lems, and by hold­ing fam­ily math nights. It aims to keep fam­i­lies think­ing about school even if par­ents haven’t prized higher ed­u­ca­tion.

“There’s that per­va­sive at­ti­tude that ‘I wasn’t good at math, so I don’t re­ally have ex­pec­ta­tions that my kids are go­ing to be good at math.’

“And that’s what we’re try­ing to change,” said Sher­rie Rellinger, a math con­sul­tant at the Water­loo Catholic Dis­trict School Board.

The school’s great­est in­flu­ence is in the class­room. New fund­ing helped the board free teach­ers from class­rooms for up to five days for ex­tra train­ing in math and learn­ing.

“I’ve al­ways had a pas­sion for math, but there’s def­i­nitely a grow­ing pas­sion just be­cause I see the pas­sion in my kids,” said teacher Ermelinda Luis, who took the ex­tra train­ing.

She’s now des­ig­nated as a lead math teacher who brings ideas to share with other St. Peter teach­ers.

Luis has learned new ways to en­gage stu­dents in Grades 3 and 4 based on a pro­vin­cial cur­ricu­lum that doesn’t stress mem­o­riz­ing pro­ce­dures. Chil­dren are asked to puz­zle through prob­lems by ask­ing ques­tions and work­ing to­gether. “The kids are team play­ers,” Luis said. Stu­dents try to work out prob­lems in their heads, bounc­ing ideas off each other. They name math strate­gies af­ter each other. Ev­ery­body is called a math­e­ma­ti­cian. Men­tal math is meant to make chil­dren com­fort­able with num­bers, with es­ti­ma­tion, with fig­ur­ing out rea­son­able­ness.

Some­times Luis snaps pic­tures of num­bers at a grocery store to show stu­dents how num­bers sur­round them ev­ery day.

“I’ve seen a dras­tic change. There’s more op­ti­mism and ex­cite­ment to­ward math,” she said.

Stu­dents say they like work­ing to­gether on math more than work­ing alone.

“I think more brains are bet­ter than one brain,” Bray­den said.

“I like do­ing it with class­mates,” said Nathan Panac­cione, nine, who likes di­vid­ing num­bers into two or three.

To il­lus­trate the team­work as­pect of math, imag­ine this chal­lenge. There’s a square with four num­bers in it. Which num­ber is dif­fer­ent?

Work­ing to­gether, stu­dents grasp there are many an­swers. Maybe three num­bers are even and one is odd. Maybe three are sin­gle dig­its and one is dou­ble dig­its. Maybe two num­bers can be mul­ti­plied to make the third num­ber, but not the fourth num­ber.

“That’s kind of a change in math. There’s not one right an­swer,” Cur­tis said.

Like other el­e­men­tary schools, St. Peter now ded­i­cates a pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment day to im­prov­ing teacher math skills. The school has ac­cess to math con­sul­tants and Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts.

Teach­ers are more closely track­ing stu­dents who fall short, to as­sess where the stu­dent is strug­gling and how the school might nudge the child for­ward.

“I know we still have a long road to go,” said Janet Wood­worth, a par­ent on the school coun­cil. “But they have been en­gag­ing the par­ents and I know that par­ents are be­com­ing more aware of the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion. What they’re do­ing, they’re on the right path.”

What’s work­ing at St. Peter has yet to pay off across On­tario. In its first year On­tario’s new math strat­egy showed lit­tle im­prove­ment with Grade 6 re­sults un­changed and Grade 3 re­sults down slightly in stan­dard­ized tests. The govern­ment is now look­ing to over­haul the cur­ricu­lum with a fo­cus on math, pend­ing pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions.

Cur­tis hopes St. Peter can main­tain its mo­men­tum if spe­cial sup­ports end. She now quizzes can­di­dates about their math skills when hir­ing teach­ers.

Wood­worth has seen her daugh­ter, Ava, 11, gain con­fi­dence. Re­cently, Ava called her over to talk about her Grade 6 math home­work. That’s not some­thing she did when she was younger.

“She sat down and she showed me how she could do the math with no help,” she said.

An­other time Ava and her mother had to dou­ble a recipe. Ava re­al­ized they were work­ing with frac­tions and that she knew how to do it.

“She’s re­al­iz­ing that math is ac­tu­ally fun,” Wood­worth said. “It’s mak­ing more sense to her.”


St. Peter Catholic El­e­men­tary School stu­dents Ad­di­son Couck­uyt, eight, left, Bray­den Hud­son, eight, Brook­lyn Lang Go­lacki, nine and Nathan Panac­cione, nine, have all learned the joy of math class now, thanks to ex­tra ef­forts by the school, the board and the prov­ince.

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