Having fun and closing gaps: The art of math, by a North Carolina PTA Teacher of the Year

Life can throw a lot at a third-grade student. In many elementary schools, third grade marks the start of letter grades, standardized testing, and state-mandated reading-proficiency requirements. In Title I schools, poverty and other issues at home often underlie and exacerbate young students’ academic struggles. Carly Schwartz teaches math and science to third-grade students at Davenport A+ Elementary in Lenoir, North Carolina. Schwartz says that some 70 percent of Davenport students come from low-income families and a significant amount of them come into her classroom below grade level. In fact, 27 percent of Schwartz’s incoming students were as much as two years below grade level at the start of the 2017–18 school year.

Davenport educators strive to help students close these gaps and develop confident learners. Davenport students routinely score among the highest in the county and exceed the state’s growth expectations. Schwartz credits a team of ardent educators, the school’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) framework, and a supportive Parent Teacher Association (PTA). “A critical contribution of the Davenport A+ PTA is the funding of Renaissance Accelerated Math®. The Renaissance assessment and practice solutions that we use across the school effectively support our efforts to develop eager learners who, regardless of their circumstances, experience success and stay on track to grade-level performance.”

"The Renaissance assessment and practice solutions that we use across the school effectively support our efforts to develop eager learners who, regardless of their circumstances, experience success and stay on track to grade-level performance.”

Carly Schwartz
Teacher – Davenport A+ Elementary

The challenge: Close proficiency gaps

Located in western North Carolina in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Davenport A+ Elementary is one of 12 elementary schools in the Caldwell County School District. The school’s “A+” designation reflects its selection as one of the state’s first 25 schools to receive a grant for integrating arts instruction into its curriculum. A Title I school, Davenport serves some 500 pre-K–5 students.

In 2016, the North Carolina PTA (NCPTA) awarded its Teacher of the Year Award to Schwartz, one of two educators recognized for outstanding contributions that benefit students while engaging families. Now in her twelfth year at Davenport, Schwartz teaches 44 third-grade students in two daily 90-minute blocks, with 60 minutes of each devoted to mathematics.

One of Schwartz’s challenges is to individualize instruction to meet the needs of students across a broad spectrum of abilities, from struggling learners to those identified as academically or intellectually gifted (AIG). “Typically, at least half of my students start the school year more than a grade behind,” she says. “We know all too well the statistics that suggest that early performance gaps tend to widen each year, so it’s vital to quickly identify and remediate problems. The introduction of two-step word problems in math, for example, can present huge obstacles to children still learning to read. I have to effectively address their needs, while simultaneously challenging learners at the higher proficiency levels. We also have to create a failsafe environment where the process of learning math is appealing, not daunting.”

The results: Individualized instruction, flexible thinkers, and closed gaps

Accelerated Math helps engage students in practice assignments, while providing educators with detailed data to track both individual and classroom progress. Schwartz uses the program for whole-class instruction and to guide independent practice. Accelerated Math enables teachers to work with the entire class on a common concept like place value, while assigning differentiated practices based on individual abilities.

Students using Accelerated Math

Cool cats and flexible thinkers

“I use the Diagnostic Report every day to identify struggling learners and to group students to work on specific objectives together,” Schwartz continues. “In keeping with our school’s big-cat mascot, I assign students to one of several groups—for example, faster learners to the Cheetahs and students who work at a slower pace to the Panthers group, with the goal of ensuring that every child makes continual progress. Depending on their needs, students may be assigned to work independently or collaboratively while I provide additional scaffolding to those in need.”

“Accelerated Math word problems also help me teach three basic reading concepts that many struggling learners do not utilize: 1) stop at a period; 2) think about what you just read; and 3) ask yourself questions—in this case, is there math in the sentence? The process helps students continue to catch up and reinforces the efforts of our language arts teacher.”

Schwartz says that Accelerated Math supports STEAM processes that teach students the importance of practice and that mistakes are opportunities to grow. She cites the ability to break assignments down into small exercises that target specific weaknesses. “Students shouldn’t feel that one mistake means they’ve failed a whole practice. We’ll simply pinpoint the problem, work on it again, and always try to end with an improvement. Another objective is to develop flexible thinkers. We recently tested math skills using another program and found that what students learn in Accelerated Math successfully transfers when problems are posed in different formats—that tells me the program’s working.”

“In comparing the application to others they’ve used, Davenport teachers steadfastly report that Accelerated Math provides the clearest, highest-quality data for informing instruction and preparing students for the North Carolina End-of-Grade (EOG) tests. The decision to implement Accelerated Math has traditionally been made at the local school level, but such on-going successes have led the district to recommend that all schools adopt the program.”

Caldwell County district educators are long-time users of Renaissance solutions, including Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360® and Renaissance Star 360®, which are standardized for use across all K–12 grades. Star 360 assessments are administered five times during the school year, and district administrators report that the assessments have proven to be a highly accurate predictor of results on the state EOG tests.

"Accelerated Math provides the clearest, highest-quality data for informing instruction and preparing students for the North Carolina End-of-Grade (EOG) tests."

Carly Schwartz
Teacher – Davenport A+ Elementary

We <3 learning math!

In 2016, the NCPTA also recognized Davenport A+ for its outstanding levels of parent involvement. Schwartz suggests that the Renaissance Home Connect online access tool encourages parents to be active in the education process. “Parents log in every week, or even more often, to check on children’s progress. The parents’ interest motivates students to do better each day, and when their children come home excited to talk about what they learned, nothing makes those parents happier.

“My goal is for each student to achieve between one and two years’ growth. Although not every child will reach grade level by the end of the year, tools like Accelerated Math are helping us rapidly close major gaps. The program truly supports everything I’m doing in the classroom, including teaching my students that numbers are both meaningful and fun to use. Many of our third graders are regularly dealing with difficult life circumstances, but we’re determined to help them enjoy learning and make real progress in spite of those challenges. I love teaching them math!”

"The program truly supports everything I’m doing in the classroom, including teaching my students that numbers are both meaningful and fun to use."

Carly Schwartz
Teacher – Davenport A+ Elementary

Life can throw a lot at a third-grade student. In many elementary schools, third grade marks the start of letter grades, standardized testing, and state-mandated reading-proficiency requirements. In Title I schools, poverty and other issues at home often underlie and exacerbate young students’ academic struggles. Carly Schwartz teaches math and science to third-grade students at Davenport A+ Elementary in Lenoir, North Carolina. Schwartz says that some 70 percent of Davenport students come from low-income families and a significant amount of them come into her classroom below grade level. In fact, 27 percent of Schwartz’s incoming students were as much as two years below grade level at the start of the 2017–18 school year.

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