New math curriculum sets a higher standard for Vineyard students

Math teacher Eve Heyman works with eighth grader Robert Hanjian, center, and Owen Engler on a math problem. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) freshmen who want to qualify for the most advanced honors algebra and calculus courses in their junior and senior years must no longer pack three years of math coursework into two years, as was previously the case. Changes to the Island school district’s math curriculum, which has been undergoing a transformation, now make it possible for students to complete a full year of Algebra 1 in the eighth grade.

Mike McCarthy, MVRHS guidance director, described the success of the program, which began as a pilot program in Oak Bluffs and was introduced school-wide this year, at a Jan. 5 meeting of the MVRHS school committee. Until this school year, Mr. McCarthy said, the 3-years-in-2 challenge was faced by every student entering the ninth grade.

Pilot program launched

Early in his tenure, Superintendent of Schools James Weiss wanted the district to offer algebra in the elementary schools in order to create more opportunities in advanced math for students in grades 9 through 12. A pilot program was launched at the Oak Bluffs School after regular school hours.

A small number of students were transported from other Island towns to the Oak Bluffs School, where math teacher Eve Heyman was responsible for the program. The first year of the program, the students completed a half-year of Algebra 1 during afterschool volunteer sessions. Gradually over a period of three years, each of the Island’s four elementary schools made scheduling adjustments so that all of Algebra 1 could be completed before those students that qualified for the program graduated from eighth grade.

At the end of seventh grade, students in all four elementary schools who appear to be capable of continuing with advanced math are given a standardized algebra readiness test, Ms. Heyman explained. The assessment consists of five sections. The student reads each of the problem sets on his or her own and answers a series of math questions about each one.  The test result yields an estimate of each student’s readiness to participate in the advanced program.

“Also, in the Oak Bluffs School, because I now teach seventh- as well as eighth-grade math, I have a better idea about which of our students will be comfortable with the algebra program,” Ms. Heyman said. The school uses the test results and teacher observations to determine who is selected to participate in Algebra 1.

“In Oak Bluffs, we have shifted the schedule so that I teach Algebra 1 three days a week,” Ms. Heyman told The Times. “This makes it possible to finish all the material in the course by the end of the year.”

Edgartown, Tisbury, and West Tisbury schools have made similar scheduling adjustments.  Ms. Heyman is proud of the program and its progress. “It’s very rewarding,” she said. “Those pilot students are now sophomore, juniors, and seniors in college.”

Less pressure

“The good news about this new curriculum is that kids are no longer under pressure to complete three years of difficult math in two years,” Mr. McCarthy told The Times. “They can take courses in math at a less frantic pace, and this is especially important at a time when they are just starting at the high school.”

Mr. McCarthy said that some students may not be developmentally ready for advanced math concepts as ninth graders or even as sophomores. This made taking three years in two even more challenging, and sometimes led to students simply backing out of the program altogether “because it was too stressful,” he said.

Doug Debettencourt, MVRHS math department chairman, echoed those views. “Now that a number of eighth-grade graduates have a solid foundation in algebra, teachers and the guidance department at the high school have many more course options as well as the flexibility to create an individualized program for each student,” he said. “It does not have to be a make-or-break situation.”

The school officials delayed reporting on the program until they had fully assessed its success. “We scheduled a big meeting in December with Matt D’Andrea [assistant superintendent], the principals and teachers from the elementary schools, and the high school in order to take stock of where we were,” Mr. Debettencourt said. “We were really pleased that when the eighth graders who had completed Algebra 1 last June were given our ninth-grade math test, they did very, very well. Then we knew we could feel confident about rolling out the broader range of course options for all students at the high school.”

Mr. Debettencourt said the program allows for more concentration. “When we were forced to teach three years in two, so that we could reach calculus by senior year, it was difficult to dig deep into the math concepts,” he said. “Now at each grade level, we can broaden the curriculum and take more time with every topic. This makes for a much better degree of preparation, and allows us to get the students more college-ready. We also think this extra exposure helps strengthen results on the standardized tests.”

Mr. McCarthy, Ms. Heyman, and Mr. Debettencourt each highlighted the administrative initiative and faculty teamwork that contributed to building momentum for this program over several years.

“We think so highly of the eighth-grade teachers from all the sending schools,” Mr. Debettencourt said. “They do an excellent job, and it is really their hard work that will give us the opportunity to offer students access to all the most advanced math classes throughout their time in high school.”