Computer program helps math students learn

Zamirah Ellis may have been several grades behind in math when she came to Joliet Central High School, but she quickly caught up this school year.

Ellis is a ninth-grade student who started behind by several grade levels in math when she began taking algebra at Joliet Central in Illinois. But a support class taught by ninth-grade teacher Israel Velazquez using a computer system to track student progress helped her get to where she needed to be.

“It was great,” Ellis said about the class. “It made me more confident in my regular algebra class because now I’m more confident in my answers.”

Ellis worked Monday morning on math problems with her laptop along with other students in the algebra support class. Students use the computers to access a program called Renaissance Math, which assesses where each one is at in his or her math ability and helps them progress with problems, tests and videos.

Velazquez, a former accountant and Chicago middle-school teacher, said the support class tries to meet each student’s ability level and bring them as close to the ninth-grade level as possible.

“We’re trying to intertwine both needs, so to speak,” he said.

Joliet Township High School District 204 implemented its accelerated math support class last school year to bridge the gap in the math skills of freshmen who come to the high schools. The goal is not only to bring students to the right math level, but to also make them college ready.

JTHS Curriculum Director Mary Balsie said roughly 50 to 60 percent of students come to the schools unprepared for math.

“It’s a struggle our community had for a long time with students not being college ready,” she said. “We work in conjunction with our (middle) schools to close that gap.”

Velazquez teaches two classes: a regular algebra class and a support class. With the support class, he has students work at their own pace. Some students progress fast while others (are) stagnant, he said.

He had one student who started out at a fourth-grade level and advanced to an eighth-grade level. Another started out at an eighth-grade level and stayed there. And another, he said, was progressing so well he may have to move the student to a 10th-grade level geometry class.

“The student still needs to be motivated to want to succeed. It’s all a matter of how far they want to go or how far they want to catch up,” he said.

The computer system updates Velazquez on student progress and signals when he might need to intervene. Each student uses math libraries set at his or her current math ability and move on to other libraries as the class goes on. The system uses benchmark assessments three times a year to gauge progress.

Velazquez said he also is trying to teach his students not to always ask for teacher help when encountering an issue. Students can use resources such as a worked-out example, videos or another student to assist them.

“It’s sort of like a structured chaos type of environment,” Velazquez said about the support classes. “So If I’m helping a student on one thing and I’ve got a little bit of a line waiting for my assistant, then I’m going to assign that 10th-grade student, I’ll have her help a certain individual on a sixth-grade library.”

Balsie said support classes change every year. This support class system is useful to the school district because it’s very “data-driven,” she said.

“We’re searching for a program that could give us data that was very meaningful,” she said. “So that we could look into moving a student from a fourth-grade to a ninth-grade library over the course of a year.”

Balsie said she expects the accelerated math program to be used more in algebra classrooms in the future. Next year, teachers may use it in geometry support classes and, from there, assess if it’s necessary for the 11th-grade level.

Alondra Orozco said Velazquez’s support class has helped her with learning algebra and showing her things she hasn’t learned before. She said he tries to help students who struggle with math.

“If you have a problem, he’ll come and help you out,” she said.

Information from: The Herald-News,