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November 4, 2016

Middle school algebra preparing students

Math teachers knew they had a challenge before them when they began working with the district’s curriculum staff five years ago to make algebra, then a high school freshmen offering, the standard eighth-grade math course.

“Their eyes were pretty big,” recalls Dr. Chuck Lybeck, Associate Superintendent of Curriculum. “They had a lot of questions.”

Now, most middle school students are enrolled in math courses at least one grade level higher than what they would have taken under the previous curriculum. Last school year, most students earned grades of C or above in those classes, equivalent to what students achieved previously in the less rigorous classes.

More importantly, more are entering high school better prepared for higher level math, setting students up for future success.

“Algebra is the key to everything in math,” says Dave Elkins, a math teacher at Chinook Middle School.

Whether students should be introduced to algebra before high school or as freshman has been long debated by educators, Lybeck said. Eventually, the district determined having eighth-graders take algebra would better prepare them for the rest of their education. Elkins says the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which place a lot of emphasis on math skills, also influenced the change.

A three-year transition began in the middle schools during the 2012-13 school year, with sixth-graders using what was once the math book used by seventh-graders. Many parents welcomed the increased academic rigor for their children, Lybeck says.

The transition was challenging for teachers. They worked to cover what they typically would have taught their students, as well as the more advanced coursework, Lybeck says.

Student struggles led Elkins, who previously taught at Park Middle School, and other teachers to develop a Foundations of Algebra course. That offering for eighth-graders doesn’t cover all of algebra but is still a step up from the previous eighth-grade coursework.

The middle schools are now in the third full year of the new math program. Many of the students who first took the advanced math classes in middle school are now taking geometry or higher math in high school. Enrollment in pre-algebra or special education math classes at the high schools was down by nearly half last school year.

The district is looking forward to making the new middle school math courses even better suited to students thanks to the selection of new curriculum expected by the end of the school year.

“We are ahead of the game,” Lybeck says, adding many school districts are now following Kennewick’s lead by moving up their middle school math courses.