MONTHLY FEATURE

Jill Smith teaches math at East Bladen High School.

INNOVATIVE MATH PARTNERSHIP HELPING STUDENTS SUCCEED

Thousands of 9th graders in North Carolina struggle every year with Math I, many of them starting high school having found little or no success in math in earlier grades. Barely six of every 10 students who took the required course last year reached a passing score on the state’s end-of-course exam, and only about half scored high enough to be considered college-and-career ready.

High schools and math teachers in Bladen County face no less of a challenge helping students in the southeastern North Carolina district catch up, build confidence and gain success in math.

“We have tried so many things, but we weren’t having much success,” said Tanya Head, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Bladen County Schools.

Then the district’s two high schools tried something different.

Head learned of a new approach being launched by the N.C. Virtual Public School, or NCVPS, that paired a math teacher in the classroom remotely with a math teacher with the virtual school. The online school was already providing a similar model for exceptional children’s classes where the teacher in the classroom often lacked content expertise. But in this case, students would benefit from the expertise of two math teachers.

Even after just a single year, both high schools – East Bladen and West Bladen high schools – achieved solid gains in 2016-17 on the Math I end-of-course exam with an innovative strategy that helped personalize learning for each student. Both schools followed a model that incorporates the power of co-teaching in a blended-learning approach – integrating face-to-face instruction with online supports.

“As a class, they all grew”

“The key to success was the close communication between the classroom teacher and the VPS teacher,” Head said. “Every day, the teachers would coordinate for the needs of the individual students in the classes.”

By design, students in the classes – one at each high school – were selected because of their difficulties learning math. West Bladen placed in the class students who hadn’t ever demonstrated proficiency in math since the first end-of-grade testing in third grade. East Bladen aimed its class at students who also struggled with math but who had shown better outcomes at some point in the past.

East Bladen last year posted one of the largest gains in the state for Math I performance – 21.8 percentage points for the share of students in the school achieving “grade-level proficiency” on the end-of-course exam; 17.9 points for the percentage of students reaching the standard for “college and career” readiness. While the gains at West Bladen were less dramatic, most students in the co-teaching Math I class came close to grade-level proficiency, said Jill Smith, the classroom teacher.

“Many students were near the cut score,” Smith said. “I don’t think they would have grown half as much without that extra support. There was no reason for them not to know what was going on in the course. Things were really, really broken down for them.” The school’s grade-level proficiency rate reached 55.3 percent for 2016-17, up from 33.5 percent the year before.

“We were able to move at a much slower pace,” Smith said. “The NCVPS curriculum is really great for those kids who need the additional support.”

Judyth Riddick, the teacher at East Bladen High, said students were aware of their own progress, which helped motivate them despite their struggles with math.

“As a class they all grew,” Riddick said, “even though they may not have gotten to a [score of] 3. Coming in, they were all 1s and 2s.”

“Two minds working toward the same goal”

Smith and Riddick each communicated daily via a Google doc with NCVPS math teacher Sara Mann, updating her on material covered in class and about student interactions and needs. Mann, in turn, posted an announcement each day for students to access after school in Canvas, the learning management system, celebrating student accomplishments in class and adding supplemental resources, from videos to interactive games to interactive practice.

“I support the co-teacher by individualizing instruction for the students,” Mann said, “based on information from the teacher. When you have 25 to 28 students, you have students who’ve mastered a concept and some who need extra help. I love that I can help provide that extra support. It’s such a unique opportunity to individualize instruction, and there are so many resources out there.”

Both classroom teachers praised the resources Mann provided students online, including notes, remediation videos for review, interactive games and other materials. Both high schools provide students with laptop computers for home use as 1:1 schools, and hotspot connections for students whose homes lack internet connectivity.

The classroom teachers also connected by phone each week with Mann to plan, catch-up and troubleshoot other issues.

“The biggest advantage is having two minds working toward the same goal and getting different perspectives and different strategies,” Riddick said. “Having someone else who could provide feedback really helped.”

During the fall semester, students took a Foundations of NC Math course, also taught through the co-teaching model, to ready them for Math I in the second semester. East Bladen High requires the same sequence for all students taking Math I, whether traditional classroom instruction or the blended approach. The co-teaching classes at both Bladen high schools followed the NCVPS curricula for both the Foundations and Math I course.

An extra layer of support

Catrina Parker, the NCVPS instructional director for math and other subjects, said the yearlong partnership that was forged between the classroom teacher and online instructor is key to the students’ success.

“That classroom teacher has an instructional partner in that journey,” Parker said. “It’s an extra layer of support for the students and the classroom teacher.” By providing extra resources such as videos and other materials, she said, the virtual school teacher is able to free up the classroom teacher to focus more closely in class on the needs of each student,

And for Riddick, now in her third year as a lateral-entry teacher, following the NCVPS curriculum and working in tandem with an experienced math teacher paid extra dividends in terms of her own professional development and her effectiveness for students.

“It is very helpful because you have an outline of topics you need to cover, and you also have a partner to help keep you on pace,” Riddick said. “What I didn’t get in my first year [teaching Math I], was an outline. It was overwhelming in my first year.

“My students that year weren’t where they needed to be to be successful,” Riddick said. “With the NCVPS partnership, I felt more confident that I was covering the material.”

The program is not without financial cost to school districts, which must pay for the NCVPS course. But several additional high schools across the state, including one school with three sections and two charter schools, are offering the co-teaching course this year. NCVPS is also piloting a Math II course this year in Bladen County.

Peggy Hester, principal of West Bladen High, said she was encouraged by the student outcomes of the Math I partnership at her school last year.

“Anytime that teachers get more support with analyzing student strengths and weaknesses, it is certainly helpful,” Hester said. “The classroom teacher was able to better meet the needs of each student individually with the support of the NCVPS teacher.”