Algebra for All

75 schools will overhaul math teaching, a move Fariña says will reduce inequity

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez

As an elementary school principal, Chancellor Carmen Fariña had parents pushing her school to enhance its math curriculum to better prepare their kids for specialized middle and high schools.

Now, she’s hoping that changing the way fifth-grade math is taught will improve the quality of math instruction across New York City — even at schools without that particular brand of pushy parents, she said.

“If you look at your higher-achieving schools or parents who think their children should be higher-achieving, you’ll see that the coursework is different than in schools in other places,” Fariña told a group of teachers and principals on Tuesday. Later, she said, “I want to see a student in the South Bronx having the same access to algebra as a kid in Park Slope.”

The educators gathered Tuesday are a part of the first group planning to “departmentalize” math at their elementary schools by designating specific teachers to be laser-focused on the subject. That’s the city’s first step toward its goal of preparing every ninth-grade student for algebra, and one Fariña said has broader implications for reducing inequities among city schools.

“If you have a teacher who teaches [math] with passion, who’s going to teach it on a regular basis and is going to make that that all the kids are on grade level, no matter which class they’re in, that’s where equity and excellence comes in,” she said.

At the start of the three-day training session, Fariña said she had been inspired both by her own experience and by some schools in the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program that she had visited that were trying departmentalized math.

Maria Della Ragione, the principal of P.S. 230 in Brooklyn, began experimenting with departmentalized math last year. She said she designated a room in her building as the “math lab” with vocabulary words and projects filling the space. Separating math has allowed students to participate in more small-group instruction, she said.

“It’s been exciting to see this kind of change,” she said.

Currently, 75 schools are signed up to departmentalize math next year. The plan is to provide at least 15 more days of training during the summer and next school year, officials said.

“You are our schools we’re going to be watching very carefully,” Fariña told the teachers and principals, “because we want to be able to say to everybody, this is the way to go.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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