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Educators Seek to Improve Student Math Success

Sep 10, 2018

This August, Santa Cruz County College Commitment, also known as S4C, brought together nearly 100 educators for the Summer Math Institute led by the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative (SVMI).

Over three days, the Shoreline Middle School gymnasium crackled with the infectious energy of teachers rather than teenagers, as they received hands-on coaching and professional development.

Men and women from across districts gathered to craft and perfect new teaching strategies, develop curriculum, and take part in hands-on workshops. Teachers laughed, bonded, and shared ideas in this rare extended time with colleagues. They brainstormed new approaches to better engage their students and fervently scribbled ideas onto large sheets of butcher paper with colored markers.

Everyone had chosen to be there, even though they were still on summer break. Their enthusiastic engagement was in part for the opportunity to hone their skills, collaborate with colleagues and find ways to help their students excel in the new year.

Advocating for teachers is a core component of S4C’s work. Their mission is to ensure that every student in Santa Cruz County has access to a post-secondary education, regardless of their circumstances. And that means ensuring educators have the necessary tools to help their students succeed in all subjects, but especially in math.

The Mathematic Hurdles to a Post-Secondary Education

For too many students, college becomes an unattainable mirage when faced with the prerequisites for enrollment. To pursue a postsecondary education, you must successfully get through three years of high school math. CSU’s and UC’s require a minimum number of math courses before you’re even eligible to apply, and most majors in a 4-year university require you to take college-level math.

To attend a community college, like Cabrillo, you don’t need a specific number of courses under your belt, but you are required to take a math placement test. In fall of 2016, more than half of Santa Cruz County graduates who enrolled at Cabrillo tested into remedial math. Of those students, half ended up failing the course.

“We know that being placed in a remedial course decreases your chances of persisting towards a certificate or degree significantly,” says S4C Executive Director Cristine Chopra. “That’s concerning and we must better prepare students.”

Teacher Success Means Student Success

To improve the odds for more Santa Cruz County graduates, S4C recently applied for a grant to focus on chronic math underachievement. We awarded S4C $275,000 to help more students meet or exceed the expectations of their math grade level and to graduate high school well prepared for college. The Community Foundation sees this grant as a first step to students becoming successful in math. We anticipate a multiple year commitment to the project – assuming successful implementation and promising results.

A large part of this grant is dedicated to professional development, and to support this initiative, the County Office of Education has created a new Math Coordinator position filled by Kevin Drinkard. An educator with nearly three decades of experience supporting both students and teachers in math, Drinkard is now helping S4C deliver professional development to math teachers throughout Santa Cruz County.

Paid opportunities like the Summer Math Institute and a 7-session ‘Twilight Series’ motivate teachers to continually adapt their classrooms to meet their students’ diverse needs. In one classroom a teacher may have students that are learning English as a second language, students who associate math with feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment, and those who need a more rigorous curriculum.

Santa Cruz County Office of Education Math Coordinator Kevin Drinkard with local teachers taking part in the Summer Math Institute at Shoreline Middle School.

“What we want is for students to become powerful thinkers; to have them grapple with a problem that makes sense in that sweet spot of cognitive demand. If it’s too hard they’ll get frustrated, if it’s too easy they’ll get bored. We’re trying to help teachers find the appropriate level of cognitive demand for their students.”

- Santa Cruz County Office of Education Math Coordinator Kevin Drinkard
Santa Cruz County Office of Education Math Coordinator Kevin Drinkard with S4C Executive Director Christine Chopra.

The Challenges Ahead

Santa Cruz County’s under achievement in math can’t all be attributed to a lack of professional development for teachers. Chopra and Drinkard explain that below-living wages, coupled with the high cost of housing, make it hard to recruit and retain teachers, particularly those with advanced degrees in math. Also, there’s a growing number of English Language learning students but few bilingual math teachers. (Only two out of a hundred teachers at the Summer Math Institute spoke both English and Spanish.) In addition, many students in our county (25% when you take into account the cost of housing and access to services) are living in poverty.

While S4C may not have the resources to tackle these larger societal issues, the organization has long-term plans to increase teachers’ content knowledge and confidence, improve classroom practice, and support administrators in providing instructional leadership in mathematics. Already, these plans are having an impact across districts. Participants of the Summer Math Institute, for instance, said the training led them to rethink and adapt some of their teaching practices.

Our grantmaking to S4C is an important investment in improving the instruction and support that helps students excel in math. As the project yields bright spots and insights, they’re being shared from Bonny Doon to the Pajaro Valley. It’s a complicated formula to solve, but when teachers have what they need to be successful, we know results aren’t far behind. On this, every student in Santa Cruz County should be able to count on: a great education equals opportunity, prosperity, and mobility.

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Written by

Kevin Heuer