By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
This is part 1 in a two-part series on the Brentwood School District’s math program. This article covers math in the elementary and middle schools. Part 2 next Monday will cover the high school.
Public education has gotten more bad press than usual in recent months. In Missouri, the biggest headlines have been about underperforming school districts losing their state accreditation. Nationally there’s been bad news too. Last week it was reported that in an exam given to half a million 15-year-olds across the globe, the U.S. failed to score among the top 20 countries in math, science or reading.
But the story has been refreshingly different in Brentwood. In August it was revealed that the Brentwood School District was the only K-through-12 district in Missouri to score a perfect 100 percent on the state’s annual performance evaluation of public schools.
A month later, it was announced that Brentwood High School was one of only 53 high schools in the U.S., and the only one in the St. Louis area, to be selected as a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. A Missouri senator visited the school last month to congratulate students and faculty.
Math Scores Fuel Success
Both honors were based mostly on standardized test scores, with some of the BSD students’ most impressive scores coming in mathematics.
For the blue ribbon, tenth-graders’ Algebra I and geometry scores over the past six years were considered. For the BSD, 63 percent of students were graded as advanced and 93 percent were proficient or advanced.
In earning a 100 percent from the state, Brentwood students scored 82.2 percent in math. That’s the second highest in the St. Louis region, behind Lindbergh, and fifth in Missouri. Freshman Algebra I scores were the highest in St. Louis County.
“Our biggest scores and improvements have been in math,” said Brentwood Superintendent of Schools David Faulkner. “Before I came here [in 2004] there was a major change in the math program – away from traditional math to an inquiry-based math. A lot of parents were concerned about it because it wasn’t the type of math they saw. So here 10 years later you can see the payoff from that. We have an elementary, middle school and high school math that asks kids to really deeply understand it.”
The most impressive aspect of the lofty math scores in high school is that it reflects improvement, says BHS Assistant Principal Stephen Ayotte.
“In math, 50 percent of kids get proficient or advanced in third grade,” Ayotte said. “By the time they’re in high school it might be 80 percent. So the growth is 30 percent. Our growth in math over that period is better than any school district in St. Louis. You might see Lindbergh with slightly higher achievement in math, but their growth from beginning to end is not nearly as high, because the kids are already starting at a higher level.”
Why Is Brentwood Mathville?
To find out why Brentwood students are doing so well in math, The Brentwood Spirit did some research. We interviewed a total of 11 BSD administrators, math teachers and students, and sat in on seven math classes at the high school, middle school and both elementary schools. We learned a lot so we’re dividing this article into two: part 1 on the grade schools and middle school, part 2 on the high school.
In math classes at Mark Twain, McGrath and the middle school, we found seven reasons why Brentwood math students succeed: small class sizes, supportive parents, quick identification of students who need help, a focus on process over product, teacher-to-teacher communication, repetition and teacher involvement in curriculum development.
Certainly there are other reasons, and we invite you to share them in the comments section below.
1. Small Classes
Sometimes when you work for the same company for more than a few years it’s easy to lose sight of the good things about your job. Not Rachel Opel. She’s in her 10th year teaching kindergarten at McGrath and she’s thankful every day for having a manageable class size.
“I have 18 students; that’s pretty low,” said Opel. “When I started teaching in Milwaukee, the inner city, I had 25 students and an aide an hour or two a week. Here there have been years I’ve started off with 14 kids. Having small class sizes is a big plus.”
Hannah Katz-Urvan, who is in her sixth year of teaching the second grade at McGrath, agrees. When she talks to friends who teach in other districts, class size often comes up.
“Size is a major factor,” Katz-Urvan said. “I have 12 students. Many of my friends in other districts have double that or more.”
“I really do think that it’s the personal attention kids get that makes a difference in their performance,” said Faulkner. “They feel like they’re going through a family school, not a factory. We offer something that a district with 3,000 kids probably can’t offer.
2. Supportive Parents
“We send homework home and often it comes back already checked,” said Katz-Urvan. “That means they’ve had someone to help them work on it, so if they struggle, they have immediate feedback and support rather than having to wait until the next day. There’ve been times I’ve e-mailed a parent to ask if they’ll help focus on this or that with their child, counting coins or something, and they’ll practice a few times a night.”
“I’d say Mark Twain is second to none about being able to meet and greet parents daily,” said principal Trina Petty-Rice.
“Parental involvement is great, fantastic,” said Opel. “Parents love to be involved. Once we educate them about the expectations, they’re really good about following through.”
3. Quick ID of Students Who Need Help
At Mark Twain, Katz-Urvan has a couple of ways of dealing with a student or group of students who need additional help with a math concept.
“Often I teach students in two groups based on needs,” she said. “I’ll teach the same content but in different ways. We also have support outside the classroom from our teacher’s aides, who serve as math interventionists. They’re able to work with an individual or a small group of students on a certain skill.”
McGrath also uses math interventionists, one for upper grade levels and one for lower.
“We’re getting interventions for those kids who need it,” said Opel. “We’re tracking the data, seeing what each kid needs. A kid may not have a math deficit across the board. They may have just one specific skill they need to work on. They get help and then they don’t need the intervention anymore.”
4. Focus On Process Over Product
A common thread in math classes at all four schools is a concentration on not just whether an answer is right, but how it was arrived at.
“It’s more important to me how you got the answer than that you got it,” Alyssa Della Camera tells her seventh-grade “challenge math” class at Brentwood Middle School.
In one of his sixth-grade math classes recently, Mike Royal said, “Oscar’s answer is correct, but I need help finding out how he got there.”
5. Teacher-to-Teacher Communication
Petty-Rice is in her second year as Mark Twain’s principal after years in the Ladue School District. She’s impressed by how closely teachers communicate in Brentwood.
“It appears that there’s a lot of collaboration,” she said. “Teachers are sitting down and talking about where students are and where they need to be. With a math committee here, teachers are very informed about where they want to move students from elementary to middle to high school. Not only with that horizontal team of the two elementary schools working together, but the vertical team of moving up from school to school.”
Said Katz-Urvan, “We’re able to do a lot of teaming with other teachers in the district. I work closely with the other second grade teacher across the hall, as well as with the two across the boulevard at McGrath.”
Pratice, practice, practice. Elementary teachers in Brentwood know that teaching math takes more than the scheduled 30-minute lesson each day. Both Opel and Katz-Urvan look for ways work on math skills regardless of the subject they’re teaching.
“We work with numbers all day long, not just during math time,” said Opel. “We integrate math into everything we do. So they’re not just getting 30 minutes of math, they’re getting a full day of math. We do a lot with math with our calendar, counting the days we’ve been in school, how many days in October, check the temperature. We compare the five-day forecast – hotter, cooler, the same.”
7. Teacher Involvement in Curriculum
Brentwood math teachers appreciate having a strong voice in developing their curriculum. Though there’s input from administrators, it’s basically written by a committee of teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade, led by BHS math teacher Kelly Javier.
“At the elementary level we’re writing our own curriculum,” said Katz-Urvan, who is on the committee. We come back to it every year. Our committee chair is Kelly Javier. Throughout the year we hear from her and check in with her. I think that the fact that we do help to write the curriculum helps us have a good understanding of it. Not all districts have teachers involved in that.”
For part 2 of this article next week, we’ll hear from math teachers at Brentwood High School.