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Milford Mill students get a boost before they get to calculus

Three years ago, no student at Milford Mill Academy passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam, which made it clear that unprepared students were being pushed into the high-level class.

In an attempt to change that, a dozen high school students who have signed up for AP calculus at the Baltimore County school are honing their math skills at a boot camp this week and next. And they'll get extra help on Saturdays during the school year.

Tekiah Hanks, a 16-year-old who might have been picking fruit or sleeping late on Thursday morning, said she has no regrets about the summer hours she has committed to solving math problems. She now understands what skills she was lacking.

"There were some things I should have known that I don't," she said during a break from class. Some of what the training has covered so far, she said, was just a refresher, but she is also learning new concepts.

Across Maryland, more minority and low-income students, who were targeted in a nationwide expansion of the rigorous college-level courses, have been funneled into Advanced Placement classes, but their success rate has been low. Failure rates of 75 percent are not uncommon in schools with high percentages of low-income and minority students. .

The Milford Mill program stems from an effort waged by Nancy Grasmick, the former state school superintendent, who led the charge to bring access to AP to every student in Maryland and has now turned her attention to ensuring their success. Working at Towson University, she helped persuade the College Board to give $225,000 over three years to help improve outcomes.

Towson University brought together 20 Baltimore County math teachers last summer for intensive training in how to teach the AP calculus class. This year, the teacher training has been expanded to 20 more teachers in Harford and Anne Arundel counties.

The second step has been to give students a better foundation. The university brought in a top math teacher, Kevin Dalsimer of Towson High School, and two Towson University students and aspiring math teachers, to teach the boot camp. They will also provide the support on Saturdays during the school year. One student from Randallstown High School is also taking part in the summer program.

About 90 percent of Dalsimer's students at Towson pass the AP calculus test each year, a pass rate that far exceeds the national average of 60 percent.

Dalsimer said he is concentrating on the prerequisite skills for calculus, paring down the math to the concepts he believes these Milford Mill students must know to handle their class next fall.

Some students end up unprepared, he said, because teachers are afraid to fail students who are trying but aren't successfully learning the math. There's pressure on teachers, he said, not to fail too many students in their classes. Being pushed into a math class unprepared is particularly hard because, unlike English or history classes, students' holes in learning are more obvious.

"I think this is a good step in the right direction," he said. Dalsimer also believes the teacher training has helped bring teachers out of their schools and encouraged collaborative relationships among math teachers around the county. "They are no longer isolated in this bubble," he said.

Tracey Dowling, the math department chair at Milford Mill, has already made huge progress in getting her students to pass the AP calculus exam. Dowling said she began by weeding out students who clearly shouldn't be in the class. In one case, she said, a student who hadn't passed the Algebra High School Assessment was nonetheless in AP calculus.

"We look at the child's entire math background," she said. In addition, Milford has begun to create a pipeline to the higher-level courses by instituting honors trigonometry and a college algebra course that are more difficult than standard classes.

In Maryland, students who haven't been prepared in earlier grades flounder in AP classes, or are awarded A's and B's in the courses and then fail the national exam. In more than a dozen schools in the region last year, about half of students who had earned high grades at their schools failed the exam.

No research exists to show that taking the class and failing the exam leaves students better prepared for college.

Dowling says she doesn't expect many students to take AP calculus. "I want 15 quality kids who are willing to work and have the necessary background," she said. She said the school had more students pass in the past two years than the previous 12 years combined. Last year, the pass rate was 46 percent, and this year it was 56 percent.

The boot camp is intended to raise that percentage again. "It's challenging," said Darren Hislop, 15, who intends to have a career in computer technology. "This training camp could prepare me."

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