Fairfield schools consider replacing math academy program

Photo of Katrina Koerting
File photo of Holland Hill School in Fairfield where the math academy is currently held. Fairfield,CT. 6/1/17

File photo of Holland Hill School in Fairfield where the math academy is currently held. Fairfield,CT. 6/1/17

Genevieve Reilly / Genevieve Reilly

FAIRFIELD — Parents and students are urging the district to keep the math academy program as officials look to end it and instead offer a new math challenge program as a way to address inequities among elementary students.

Some students said prior to math academy they used to be picked on by their classmates or wouldn’t be called on by the teacher because they always knew the answer. When they finished their work they would be given a math packet that kept them busy but not challenged or they would help the teacher correct their peers’ assignments or tests.

“When in class, I feel more comfortable than other years because I’m not called names for knowing the answers,” one student said at a recent school board meeting.

She said the academy moves faster and challenges her, which is the best way to learn.

“We dig deeper into the concepts of math, learn the foundation of the math and not just how to apply the formula,” she said.

Her comments were echoed by several of her peers and their parents during the public comment portion who also said it gave them a place to feel accepted and be surrounded by like-minded students.

The math academy was introduced in the 2018-19 school year as an accelerated program for top fourth and fifth grade math students to be challenged more and meet a need the district said it wasn’t addressing at the time. Since then, officials say several concerns have been raised about the program. It was also cut, then restored in the last budget.

One concern is a lack of transportation to get students to the centralized location at Holland Hill, which limited access and created inequities, said Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings, adding district staff also found disparities with some schools not having any students selected to participate.

“In order to address these issues of inequity and access, and not to incur more cost, we have had to make changes to the current structure,” Cummings said.

Officials say the new math challenge program, which will add 45 minutes of math every six days, is a way to address these issues. This program will now let every fourth and fifth grade student have access to this deeper look at math and could also allow for math competitions. The plan is for the current fourth graders to finish out the academy next year, but not bring in a new fourth grade class.

The challenge program will not replace regular math classes, but will align with those units. Students will look at different types of problems, strategies for problem solving and collaboration, said Walter Wakeman, the district’s program director for elementary math, science and enrichment.

He said additional resources have already been added at the K-5 level, though not fully implemented yet, and the district is looking at existing curriculum. He said there will be more professional development and work as teachers look to challenge all learners.

“It’s not just a one-blanket response,” he said.

Several school board members said the program will help students in general by broadening access to math, but they worried it did nothing to address the students who would have been selected for the math academy program and who aren’t challenged in their regular courses, calling it more of an enrichment than acceleration approach. They also worried finding the 45 minutes would create a challenge for the elementary school principals and add work for teachers who were already doing a lot.

“Something needs to be done and I get that, but I’m concerned this creates more problems that it solves,” said board member Jessica Gerber.

She also worried the additional 45 minutes of math could create additional stress for some students.

Cummings said he understood the concerns but the district was unable to replicate the math academy, even on a small scale, at all 11 elementary schools due to costs. He said about 40 fourth graders are identified for the program each year and that amount couldn’t justify the additional staff who would need to be hired if the program was at each school.

He acknowledged the challenge program doesn’t replace what the academy offered and staff are looking at other ways to offer those accelerated paths to those students.

“What we’re proposing instead is exchanging the idea of acceleration for a greater depth of learning for all students,” Cummings said.

Laura Horne, whose son is a fifth grader in the academy, said the proposal helps the individual schools, but not the students in the program. She said her daughter is a fourth grader in the math Olympics program and it pales in comparison to the immersive academy.

Board member Jeff Peterson meanwhile applauded the broader access with the new program.

“This is the right way to go,” he said.

This program and other proposed curriculum changes will be discussed at the Dec. 14 meeting.