Education

For Class of 2025 students, math more often means better grades, better understanding

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
April 24, 2023 12 p.m.

Some students spend twice as much time in math classes as their peers.

OPB has been following a group of students in the Class of 2025, after the state of Oregon set a goal that every student starting with that class, should successfully complete high school. The group of students OPB is following started together at Earl Boyles Elementary School in southeast Portland. The students in OPB’s Class of 2025 are now sophomores in high school.

Imagine a “typical” math class. Students are quietly seated in rows, some focus on the teacher’s lesson while others look out the window on a snowy Friday afternoon.

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Now imagine a different math class. Teachers Steve Vancil and Galen Schmitt are assigning students a worksheet on proportions, with a few different equations to solve.

“I want you to work together on this,” Vancil said.

“It’s OK to be noisy,” Schmitt added.

Schmitt and Vancil work at David Douglas High School in Southeast Portland. They team-teach a math class in place of a teacher who has been absent. Schmitt typically spends his days in the school’s tutoring center, or coordinating ACT or SAT exams. Vancil mentors new teachers and teaches a “Robot Algebra” class.

Today they’re in Integrated Math 2. After working through a few math problems, Vancil announces a short break. He’s taking the students outside on a snowy Friday to catch snowflakes.

“I’m so proud of you for coming out here,” he tells one reluctant student.

Another student starts thinking out loud about how long it might take the snow to melt, and how to figure that out with math.

“There’s a formula for it!” Vancil responded.

Teachers Steve Vancil, standing, and Galen Schmitt, seated, lead an "everyday" Integrated Math 2 class at David Douglas High School on March 24, 2023. Students in this class get twice as much math as their peers and have a higher passing rate.

Teachers Steve Vancil, standing, and Galen Schmitt, seated, lead an "everyday" Integrated Math 2 class at David Douglas High School on March 24, 2023. Students in this class get twice as much math as their peers and have a higher passing rate.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Between the impromptu trip outside and encouraging students to talk in class, Vancil is trying to make math less of a chore.

“You want the math to be meaningful, but you want it to be fun,” Vancil said later that day. If he would’ve had more time to plan the trip to catch snowflakes, he said he would’ve asked students to come up with a mathematical question, something they could solve together as a class.

“As long as you’re creating that interest or creating something that makes it so they’re engaging more in the learning — not a single one was on their phone, not a single one.”

There isn’t always time for fun activities in a math class though. At David Douglas, students learn a lot of new concepts in Integrated Math 2, a sophomore-level math class.

This group of students has Integrated Math 2 every day. Not every student gets that at David Douglas, where students generally follow a “block schedule” with four long class periods each day. That means most classes, including core subjects like math, are every other day.

“Everyday math” students learn the same things as their every-other-day classmates — but with a few main differences. With more frequent classes, teachers have time to slow things down and break apart hard-to-understand concepts. And it allows teachers to present content in more engaging ways, such as through group discussions or forays into the snow.

Oregon requires three years of high school math — starting with Algebra — to earn a diploma. That can be a barrier to high school graduation for students. At David Douglas High, some students spend twice as much time in math classes as their peers, an effort that gives students a better understanding — and better grades — than those who have math less often. Students and staff say the structure of the class and highly-skilled teachers are key to helping students pass one of the school’s toughest classes.

“‘Every day’ is designed to go at a slower pace and help build more understanding of the topics,” said Nikki Whitton, a David Douglas math teacher who is part of the “every day” teaching team both for Integrated Math 1, for freshmen, and Integrated Math 2, typically taken by sophomores.

“We have more time to explore math and do activities.”

According to district data from the last five years, students in the sophomore math class every day have a 76% passing rate. Students who take it every other day have a 69% passing rate. That’s even though the school tends to enroll students in everyday math if they have previously struggled with the subject.

Sophomore math is one of the hardest classes to pass at David Douglas. Whitton said freshmen math has a lot of review, but sophomore year brings new topics in a subject students may have had a hard time with in the past.

Overcoming “math trauma”

Several students in OPB’s Class of 2025 project say they have a history of not feeling good about math.

Anais is a David Douglas sophomore and one of the students OPB has been following since first grade. Before high school, before COVID — all the way back in middle school, Anais struggled in math. She said she was “bad” at it.

“I probably had an F or a D — maybe even a C,” Anais said. “No, probably like a D+.”

Having a hard time in math in middle school can be a red flag for high school, when passing math becomes essential for graduation.

Things for Anais started to turn around during distance learning. She liked her teacher’s pace with the material.

“The way they were explaining it, I feel like it helped a little more — so I had an A,” she said, “and I’ve been having A’s in math.”

The idea of “math trauma” isn’t new. It refers to the anxiety some people have around math, or the negative experiences that made them feel like they weren’t “good” at it, leading to lingering discomfort with the subject.

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In her everyday math class, teacher Toni Fujiwara said she wanted students to understand that they may have been traumatized by their past math experiences so that they can “move through it.”

“And realize it’s not them, it was what somebody told them about themselves that truly is holding them back,” Fujiwara said. “I’m going to show them that they are capable, and Nikki [Whitton] is going to show them, and Steve [Vancil] is going to show them.”

Not every teacher wants to feed into the idea that some students have a bad relationship with math. Vancil worries that students might use “math trauma” as an excuse to avoid the subject altogether.

“Maybe the math trauma is that they haven’t had enough time to play with the math,” Vancil said.

Regardless of how teachers talk about it, some students have had a tough history in math class.

Leyna is another Class of 2025 student at David Douglas High. Like Anais, Leyna said she did poorly in math all through elementary and middle school.

It changed in high school. Both Leyna and Anais took everyday math, the same class, with teacher Heidi Willis their freshman year.

There, they started to really get it. Both students said math every day is critical to that understanding.

“I actually like doing math every day because I can remember stuff,” Leyna said. “If we do one thing one day, and then I can remember it the next day.”

With more time, teachers are able to make math more engaging — whether it’s through fun activities or in just connecting the subject with more real-world applications.

Before she taught math, Fujiwara taught social studies. She finds ways to connect architecture and Greek history in math class.

“We’re not like revolutionizing the way math’s being taught, we’re just teaching it through a real-world lens first,” Fujiwara said.

“We’re going qualitatively first, then bringing in the quantitative — real-world examples before we go into this abstract.”

Engaging content is one piece. Student success with math can also depend on whether their teachers can form relationships and build trust with their students.

Teachers key to the equation

Anais is a sophomore. But she still talks to her ninth grade math teacher almost daily. She also gives her teacher this year, Nikki Whitton, two thumbs up.

“Ms. Whitton? Oh yes, she’s up there!” Anais said.

“If you can be engaging and inviting, you’re going to reach more students than not,” Vancil said. “If anything, COVID has taught us that having a good teacher really makes a difference.”

Leyna said her teacher, Toni Fujiwara, explained math in a way that made sense to her.

“She always had like these slide shows, and the characters, you know, the Bitmojis she put those on which was kind of funny, but like her slide shows were really easy to understand,” Leyna said of the teacher.

But Fujiwara has been gone, taking a leave of absence for the last few months for her mental health. She said the workload has been unsustainable. She says she was getting extra help last year, and she didn’t have that this year.

Leyna said it’s been tough to learn from a rotating cast of substitute teachers leading the class.

“The subs, they don’t really explain things the same way,” Leyna said. “So one sub would explain something different and then the other sub would explain something different, like none of them really matched.”

In the last several weeks, Vancil and Schmitt have taken over a couple of Fujiwara’s classes, providing more consistency for about 60 students. Building new relationships with the students hasn’t been easy.

“I know that I’m not going to get everybody,” Vancil said.

By the end of two weeks in the class, he’d reached out to every parent, letting them know he’s there to help students. Vancil also mentors teachers at the school — including Schmitt, who has previously taught in alternative settings and in the school’s peer tutoring program. Sometimes Vancil can’t be there — he might have another class to teach, or other duties. But he wants students to know he’s there for them.

“I want them to know that I believe in them,” he said.

“I think these kids are in good hands,” said Fujiwara, who was mentored by Vancil. As a teacher who has felt the stress of the classroom and understands the importance of relationships with students, Fujiwara appreciates that teachers like Vancil are focusing more on connecting to students and supporting their mental health and social emotional wellbeing. But she said conditions need to be better for teachers, too.

Sophomores are forecasting for next year, planning out their fall classes. Math in junior year splits into a couple of different paths.

Students who didn’t take or failed Integrated Math 2 will be in that class. And it’ll be possible again, to take it every day.

Another group — students who were more successful with math sophomore year — will take Integrated 3, opening the door to take pre-calculus senior year.

A third group of students — those who struggled through the previous integrated math classes — may take a course called “mathematical models” to earn that third math credit required for graduation.

But neither of those junior-level classes are available every day.

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