How one school’s kids tackled math
New Haven Independent. Christopher Peak. August 26, 2019.

As she rode the morning bus, Melany Abigail Catota Lopez, a third-grader at Strong School, pulled a stack of pink notecards with multiplication tables out of a plastic baggie. Her teacher had helped her cut them out. She asked a friend to help her go over them.

“But you know them,” the friend told her.

“I know,” Catota said. “I just want to practice them in case.”

Hours later, that cramming came in handy as Catota competed in a “math bee” at Strong 21st Century Communications Magnet School — the school’s riff on a spelling bee that encourages students to go over primary math skills.

The extra hours of study helped Catota take home the competition’s top prize of a “Pop To Win!” board game, a study-hall version of “Trouble.” And that helped Strong at the end of the academic year earn state recognition as a “School of Distinction,” an honor given to only 160 schools in Connecticut, for its rapid growth in math scores among high-needs students.

As students prepare to return to school Thursday for the start of another academic year, Strong’s success shows how one school has responded to New Haven’s biggest instructional challenge: how to teach kids math.

Over the past two years, Strong has focused on what experts call “math facts.”

Just as in language arts, where readers are eventually supposed to recognize about 200 common words on sight without having to sound them out, students are expected to also be able to do basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems almost automatically.

To help reinforce those fundamentals, Strong School has been running “math bees” throughout the year. Along with a new teaching method, added after-school tutoring and a slew of other programs, those drills have helped the school nearly double its math proficiency rates in one year, even if three-quarters still aren’t where the state wants them to be.

But more importantly, regardless of what they know at the beginning of the year, the average student at Strong is completing 76.6 percent of their growth targets, a metric that shows whether they’re on track to reach grade level within five years, even if they’re way behind when they start.

The rate among high-needs students — who are living in poverty, growing up with disabilities, or learning English for the first time — is even higher.

At 77.7 percent of growth targets met, the average Strong student with high needs far exceeds even the state average of 55.4 percent of growth targets met. It’s an especially impressive feat at a school where nearly every student is overcoming challenges: 71 percent of the students are living near the poverty line, 39 percent of the students are learning English and 12 percent of the students have special-education plans.

“The NHPS Math Department is immensely proud of the students and faculty at Strong,” said Kenneth Matthews, the department’s supervisor. “They exemplify the Math Department’s mission of lifelong learning and access to higher education and careers in STEM.”

On a recent afternoon after coming back from lunch, a group of about 20 students from Strong’s fourth-grade class lined up to compete in the year’s final math bee. A teacher sat at the desk, ready to click through a slideshow of multiplication equations.

They’d each have five seconds to answer correctly before being eliminated.

12 x 8? A student blanked, unable to think of the answer before the clock ran out. 8 x 4? 24, a student incorrectly said, just off with the answer to 8 x 3. 11 x 7? 77, a student blurted out, making five syllables sound like two.

Like him, most of the students knew the answers off the top of their head right away. After the first round, just a handful of students had been disqualified.

For the second round, they’d have to answer even faster, within just three seconds. 

12 x 11? Ouch, that was a toughie. 4 x 9? “I don’t know know that one,” a boy said. 10 x 6? Now, that was a gimme.

The remaining students who got their answers right — some with buzzer-beaters, just before the clock ran out — raced to the back of the line, not wanting to risk even a second of being caught off guard. By the end, almost half the group had sat down.

For the final round, about 10 students who couldn’t be stumped — many of them participants in Strong’s after-school tutoring sessions — went head-to-head, competing in pairs to see who could answer quicker.

They were so fast that, to win, the students had to say their answers almost as soon as the numbers flashed on the whiteboard.

The finals came down to Melany Catota and Saviour Moccormack. 12 x 8? Catota yelled out first. 96! The class burst into applause.

“You guys have got those facts down so well, we couldn’t even get you out,” Principal Susan DeNicola told the class.

Holding her certificate and her prize afterwards, Catota said that she had started “sweating,” by the time she’d made it to the finals. “I was worried that maybe they would have done it,” she said. “But then when it was 12 x 8, I just turned around and said the answer quick.”

“Looking at where we were, which was low, we knew that we needed to make some changes,” DeNicola said. “We kind of revamped everything, because what we were doing wasn’t working.”

Catota said that she knew the answers would be helpful to her later on. Especially if she wanted to be a teacher, she added, though she was thinking about being an actress. She said her mom, who’d helped her practice the twelves while they were driving around, had been “impressed.”

Could she do thirteens? “On paper,” she said. “Sometimes in the mind too. Like right now, 20 x 3 is 60.”

Moccormack said she liked being challenged in her math classes. Right now, she said she was learning how to do three-digit multiplications.

“If you don’t know it, you can concentrate on how to do it,” she said. After solving it, “I feel excited. It’s like I already knew it.” 

The “math bees” are just one part of a bigger overhaul of Strong School’s math instruction. Even without having a math coach on staff, the principal and the magnet resource coordinator worked with teachers to come up with fixes.

They doubled down on the “workshop” model, where students spend the bulk of class working in small groups on a series of increasingly difficult equations, Mathews asid. That method has shown success in other schools, like Quinnipiac Real World Math STEM School, where last year’s fifth-graders showed more growth in their math scores than any other group of kids in the entire state.

They divvied classes up by ability, allowing some groups to get ahead while others worked on fundamentals. Unlike “tracking,” which permanently keeps students apart based on initial scores, those arrangements are flexible. They change throughout the year based on classwork and assessments. Catota, for instance, had recently moved up into a more advanced group.

They added an after-school tutoring session through Title I funds, where two math teachers stayed late after school for four months. Rather than just baby-sitting students while they do homework, they challenge them with advanced problems for two hours.

They added a math night for parents, where nearly 70 parents showed up to learn how they could help their kids study.

And they also drilled down into their math facts, reviewing the fundamentals with elementary-school students to make sure they weren’t stumped by easy calculations, through computer games, everyday classes and regular competitions.

“It’s the basics,” said Julie Demsky, the school’s math coach. “Especially with the Smarter Balanced Assessment” — the state’s year-end test — “when you’re getting into those harder word problems, if you don’t know addition or subtraction facts, that’s going to slow you down.”

Demsky added, though, that they weren’t trying to teach to the test. She said the math facts gave students the self-assurance they needed to feel like they can tackle tougher equations.

“When they have that strong basis, you can move onto that more complex, four-step math problems,” she said. “They’re more confident in tackling something like that, and just having that helps them to push through.”

At Strong, teachers wanted to make that process fun, so they introduced the math bees. Charles Warner, Jr., a math teacher, said he modeled the idea off of competitions that he did as a student at Worthington Hooker School years ago.

“Math is cumulative, so if you have a gap somewhere, you really are stuck until you address it,” he said. “The little part we can do in elementary school is give them that solid beginning so that they can take off, build and make their way to calculus or trigonometry so much.”

Principal DeNicola said that her school had come so far because she gave teachers “more autonomy.” When she received the math scores two years ago, she said she’d been “devastated” and “defeated,” because she felt like her staff had already been trying so hard.

DeNicola called her staff together for an emotional meeting. She said she told them, “We know we have to follow the mandates of the district. However, what can we do to change things?”

“I really felt like I needed to put it back in their hands. Not like, ‘It’s you’re problem, figure it out,’ but more like, ‘Alright, we’re going to brainstorm together as a group. We need to decide what are we going to do,’” she said. “That made a world of difference, letting them know we support you. Because you know the kids better than us. We can dictate, but you guys are the ones that can really make the difference.”

DeNicola said the work teachers put in has changed Strong School’s reputation. It went from the overflow kindergarten, where parents with unregistered five-year-olds lined up every August to claim a late spot, into a school that was being held up by the state for its progress.

That transformation will be completed when the school moves to a new building on Southern Connecticut State University’s campus in January and is renamed the Barack H. Obama University Magnet School.

“We’re going to have waitlists,” DeNicola predicted. “I’m extremely proud of where we’ve come.”

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