Schools do the math to shape critical thinkers OC Register 1-30-2011

Schools do the math to shape critical thinkers  OC Register 1-30-2011


A student who has mastered algebra by the eighth-grade is ready to succeed in high school and on the right path to college.

That’s the philosophy at Spring View Middle School, where no course is more important than algebra, said the school’s Principal Jason Blade.

Some students spend up to three extra hours a week in algebra, while teachers continuously comb through testing data to target the weaknesses of those struggling and provide additional lessons and support.

That approach has helped Spring View more than double the percentage of algebra-proficient students over the past two years, the highest improvement of any Orange County middle school. In 2010, nearly two out of three eighth-graders at Spring View tested proficient in algebra.

“It used to be that only your high fliers, those honor or advanced students, would take algebra in middle school,” Blade said. “Now, the movement is to make algebra available to all students. So we have to work toward that goal.”

Across Orange County, other middle schools have taken on the responsibility of helping an increased number of students forge ahead in algebra.

In 2010, about 57 percent of all eighth-graders in Orange County were enrolled in algebra, an increase from just 20 percent enrollment in 2000.

Over the same period, the rate of eighth-graders passing state algebra tests has nearly tripled.

Leaders of algebra renaissance include Mendez Fundamental Intermediate in Santa Ana, C.E. Utt Middle School in Tustin and Lexington Junior High in Cypress.

Principals, teachers and counselors at these campuses not only try to enroll as many students as possible into algebra courses, they also work to ensure all students have the support they need to succeed.


Educators often describe algebra as a gateway course to critical thinking. It’s a necessary first step toward college, they said. The state also recommends that students complete the course in the eighth-grade so they can enroll in a higher number of advanced math, and science classes before they graduate high school.

Lawmakers also made algebra a high school graduation requirement and spent tens of millions of dollars to train teachers, buy textbooks and tutor students. They then approved the state high school exit exam, which calls for students to know algebra, among other subjects, to receive a diploma.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even called in 2008 for a requirement to teach algebra to all eighth-graders, but a lack of state funding for teacher training and other resources effectively killed the initiative.


At Mendez Fundamental, 99 percent of eighth-graders enrolled in algebra in 2010, with 62 percent of all eighth-graders testing proficient.

Teachers and administrators funnel nearly all eighth-graders into the course and students spend two hours each day in algebra classes, twice as much time as in any other course. During weekends, many students attend an algebra academy for tutoring and other support in the course.

Lexington Junior High had about 97 percent of all eighth-graders enrolled in algebra with half of those students testing proficient.

The school is part of Anaheim Union High School District, which has prioritized the enrollment of as many students as possible by the eighth grade.

The entire district’s eighth-grade algebra enrollment rate of 93 percent was among the highest in the state last year. But because the district reaches out to include more students, its schools generally have lower proficiency rates.

Only three of the district’s nine middle schools had proficiency rates higher than 30 percent.

District officials the approach gives more students the opportunity to reach higher standards.

They also said for students who fail, a second year of algebra can provide the additional support they need to eventually pass the course.

Utt Middle School had the county’s highest rate – 65 percent – of algebra-proficient eighth-graders in 2010 countywide.

The campus has consistently had a record of high enrollment and high success attributed to a series of intervention programs and support strategies. They include algebra readiness courses for seventh-grade students to help them prepare.

“With the competition for college entrance at an all-time high, it’s our duty to do everything we can to ensure our students have a fighting chance,” said Tustin algebra teacher Pam Johnson.