Aiming to narrow achievement gap; Program encourages black pupils to excel in mathematics


At the chalkboard in Marilyn Rosenblatt's Pikesville Middle School classroom, 13-year-old Meghan Holly cranks out a wicked algebra problem.

"You're on today," Rosenblatt said. Meghan beams.

In a nation full of adults petrified by fractions and percentages, eighth-grade pupils enrolled in the school's Algebra With Assistance tackle difficult equations involving negative integers with ease.

The program, which serves predominantly black pupils, is aimed at narrowing the Baltimore County school system's minority achievement gap by encouraging black pupils to excel in mathematics -- a subject they must master to take advanced science and computer classes and to do well on college entrance exams.

In addition to their regular Algebra I class, pupils attend several math tutorials every week. To do so, they give up an elective, such as art or music. Most of them signed up for the AWA program -- without parental prodding.

"I did it on my own," said Andrew Pickens, 13, one of 30 AWA participants at Pikesville Middle. "I knew I had to do it. I knew I needed extra help with my math. Now, it feels easier. Before, there was too much complication."

Positive feedback like that -- from teen-agers, parents and teachers -- has prompted Baltimore County education administrators to take notice of the nascent mathematics program, which Pikesville Middle Principal Barbara Walker began last year.

Building on the AWA program's success, Walker has started two similar mathematics tutorials to help sixth- and seventh-graders.

"Not only are students getting extra help but a big boost in their confidence level," said pre-algebra tutorial teacher Sheila Thomas. "It does me good to see them striving to reach a higher level."

Baltimore County education officials have long worried that black students are underrepresented in advanced mathematics courses.

"We have done a number of things to increase the participation of African-American children in higher-level mathematics, including special summer programs and incentives," said Penelope P. Booth, the county school system's secondary mathematics coordinator.

Booth worked with Walker to set up the AWA program, which is loosely modeled after a similar mathematics tutorial in Montgomery County.

"This is just one more way that we can all work toward that goal," she said.

A crucial step

Understanding algebra is seen by many educators as a crucial first step in a student's quest for a college education. Yet the subject can be difficult because it requires eighth-graders to contemplate abstract ideas for the first time, said Rosenblatt.

A year after its inception, the AWA program is winning accolades. Seventy percent of pupils who participated in the tutorial program passed the county's Algebra I final exam last year, compared with 50 percent countywide.

This year, the AWA program is being used at Deer Park, Old Court, Franklin, Woodlawn, Loch Raven, Catonsville and Southwest Academy middle schools.

Retired Baltimore County mathematics teacher Colleen MacDonald returned to the school system to oversee the program. She travels between schools, talking with teachers about what works and what doesn't.

To graduate from high school, students need three units of mathematics, but education officials hope AWA students will push harder and that some of them will take upper-level math classes.

Tracking progress

As AWA participants advance to high school, MacDonald will follow their progress, tracking how far students take their math education.

Most days, Rosenblatt begins her AWA class with a drill. Pupils' questions dictate the rest of the class period. Rosenblatt makes her pupils copy problems onto the chalkboard and, without coming across as critical, reminds them of important steps.

She encourages them to work together and is never short with praise.

"I love algebra and I like it when I can see that they see the relationships and the beauty of algebra," Rosenblatt said. "They understand that it will help them get into college. There's not a whole lot of me having to say, 'Get out your paper and pencil.' "

Confidence boost

Rosenblatt's pupils seem happy to have the extra time to work through difficult algebra equations and prepare for exams. Rosenblatt consults with their Algebra I teachers about tests so she knows what kind of skills to emphasize. "This is important," she said.

Since joining Rosenblatt's class, 13-year-old Roxanne Lurie said she's more confident about her mathematics skills. "Now I understand things better," she said.

Brian Hirshfeld, 13, an AWA participant, is less perplexed by his algebra homework, said his mother, Sarah Hirshfeld. He doesn't have to beg his older sister for help.

"He's not telling me that he's having problems," Sarah Hirshfeld said. "So often, the focus at school is on reading skills, but I think this algebra tutorial will help prepare him for high school. I think it's wonderful."

Pub Date: 10/11/99

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