School’s math plan adds up
Primary grades’ strategy engages students, teachers and families — and is getting results
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.