A Pilot Math Program Seeks to Make Fifth-Graders “Algebra Ready”

As a new year of in-person learning gets started in the public school system, administrators are rolling out new enhanced study programs. One program that began two years ago as a pilot program aims to strengthen math skills for students in grades 5-8.

College math instructors team up with district math teachers on St. Thomas and St. John through Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. (Photo credit: Johns Hopkins website)

The program is the product of a public-private partnership between the Education Department and Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Students from the Virgin Islands have been involved in some of the center’s summer programs since 2012.

According to the center’s senior program manager, enhanced math instruction is delivered virtually through a teaching team made up of a Johns Hopkins math instructor working with elementary school teachers. Participating students are chosen based on ability and interest, the program manager said.

“The program is a co-teaching model, where we have a CTY instructor working with a district teacher,” said Johns Hopkins CTY Senior Program Manager Simeon Brodsky. “We work with them in a virtual platform that overlays the school’s curriculum. They are working at a depth that is a little bit deeper than the other students and at a pace that’s a little faster.”

Fifth-grade students at Addelita Cancryn Intermediate and Junior High School and at Joseph Gomez Elementary School were first to enter the pilot program. They were joined by Yvonne Milliner-Bowksy Elementary and Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School on St. Thomas and Julius E. Sprauve School on St. John in 2021.

Ulla Muller and the Joseph Sibilly Elementary schools added CTY math classes this year, said the center’s communications director Karen Coker-Duke.

Sprauve School Principal Michelle Rogers-Bully said the 2022-2023 school year gives her Johns Hopkins math program a chance to expand. ” … This year, we will continue with that program, adding sixth grade to the fifth-graders who started this year. So, those students are in sixth grade this year, and we have new fifth-graders coming in, who will also be a part of CTY, for those who are interested in being a part of it,” Rogers-Bully said.

Gomez School Principal Erma Skelton mentioned her students’ participation in the program during an opening-day discussion about the school’s plans to improve standardized test scores. Test scores were, for a long time, nothing to cheer about in the Virgin Islands. In 2019, Education officials spoke proudly about improved math scores in grades 3-11, although some classes still had weak showings.

Brodsky agreed the program has the potential to score improvements in that area but suggested a different approach to testing overall.

Researchers working with the Hopkins Center say they’ve found that school systems focus on increasing the number of students achieving proficiency on tests. Many of the students they work with are just short of that benchmark, and administrators focus on nudging them over the proficiency mark.

But Hopkins researchers working with the math program say those same students often show they are capable of not just passing, but excelling if they’re encouraged to do so. “For these students, they’re not coming close to what they could do,” Brodsky said.

“In the program, we’re looking for students who are compliant. They look like they’re paying attention and occasionally raise their hand to ask questions. But they’re not asking as many questions as they could. Or we’re looking for the student who’s sitting in the back of the room, not participating, not because they’re not learning. In most instances, they’ve already grasped the lesson, and they’re no longer engaged with the instruction,” Brodsky said.

CTY math program wants to increase student engagement by challenging them in ways they may not have experienced before. If they can do so, and if students stick with it through the eighth grade, “by the time they’re in the eighth grade, we hope they’ll be algebra ready,” the program manager said.