CREDIT MISCOMMUNICATION: Amphi math credit change angers parents - The Explorer: Import

CREDIT MISCOMMUNICATION: Amphi math credit change angers parents

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Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Richard Anderson doesn't claim to be a mathematician, but he can tell when things don't add up. The Amphitheater Public Schools district telling students and parents one thing, and then doing something else just doesn't, he says.

At issue is a change in the district practice of offering high school mathematics credit for algebra I, algebra II and geometry courses taken at the middle school level. There are currently 512 students enrolled in these courses at the district's five middle schools.

For at least a decade, Amphi students taking accelerated math courses in middle school received a high school mathematics credit and, in the case of algebra II and, most recently, geometry, that credit was graded and counted toward the student's cumulative high school grade point average.

In August, a week after school started at sites on the traditional calendar and two weeks after the start of the modified calendar year, district officials decided that credit for those courses would only count as an elective when transferred to high school and no grade would be given.

"If they had wanted to have it not count any more for high school math credit, then they needed to set that as a requirement right out front, before school started," said Anderson, whose son, Michael, is enrolled in an early morning honors geometry/trigonometry class at Coronodo K-8 School, 3401 E. Wilds Road. "This became policy after the fact. This is a failure of the leadership to entrust someone to make a decision and then make sure everyone knows about it."

Anderson became aware of the change when he received a Jan. 9 letter from Coronado administrators. He sent a letter to district administrators Jan. 13 complaining about the change.

Anderson is not the only person upset with the new credit rules. Parents, teachers and a few mid-level administrators are frustrated with what they say is a massive communication failure in the district.

"It's a mess," said Amphi Middle School registrar Paula Hernandez. "We were informed a month before Christmas break."

On Aug. 15, district administrators, some of the middle school principals, the three high school principals and a few parent representatives met at Cross Middle School, 1000 W. Chapala Drive, to discuss middle school mathematics credit.

Three things were decided: That students would receive high school elective credit only for accelerated math courses taken in middle school, that the credit would be given only to students earning an A or B in the course, and that those students would receive no letter grade on their high school transcript, but rather a "pass."

What apparently was not decided at that meeting was how and when to inform parents and students of the change.

A Sept. 19 memo from former Associate Superintendent Richard Hooley to middle and high school principals announcing the changes said the new rules should be implemented "for this year (02-03)" and that the reasoning behind the changes were attached to the memo "for you to share with interested stakeholders." (see related story, page 6)

While the memo did not specifically tell principals that parents and students should be notified or how they should be notified, Patrick Nelson, who took over Hooley's job in December, said in an interview last week he was "sure that information was communicated verbally."

Hooley left the district in October to become superintendent of Valley Central School District in Montgomery, N.Y.

Canyon del Oro High School Assistant Principal Robert Wendel, who attended the Aug. 15 meeting, said the meeting ended with high school administrators leaving it "to the middle schools as to how they would inform parents."

"Whether I said to notify everyone immediately, I honestly can't remember," Hooley said during a phone interview from New York. "What I recall - it's tough since I'm not there - I know we were making decisions in the current year, but I don't remember what the directive actually was (for implementation) and I probably gave it."

In fact, each of the four middle schools that feed the Northwest's two high schools has interpreted the directive, or lack thereof, differently.

Principal Rob Vinyard said his school (Cross) has had the least problems with the change because the Aug. 15 meeting was an adjunct to a spring meeting he'd had with representatives from Canyon del Oro High School, 25 W. Calle Concordia. At that meeting, math teachers from both schools decided to switch from giving graded high school mathematics credit to accelerated middle school students and instead give elective, non-graded credit.

"It was us meeting and deciding this would be best for us and CDO," Vinyard said.

Chris Yetman, the head of CDO's math department concurred.

"This was a decision between Cross and CDO, no one else was involved … but it seems to have been extrapolated to the rest of the district," he said.

As a result of that meeting, Vinyard sent letters in summer registration packets to qualified students and parents informing them of the change.

"We haven't had any parental complaints about the change, I guess because they knew ahead of time."

Not so at La Cima Middle School, 5600 N. La Canada Drive.

"I was at a meeting where we were told what had been decided - I wasn't asked to a meeting where it would be decided," said Principal Gail Gault. "We were told, at a meeting of principals with Dr. Hooley - there were no parents there - that the rule was to be students taking the class previously for math credit would no longer get a grade or math credit, just elective."

Gault said her math teachers had already informed parents at the school's open house in August that advanced math students would get graded math credit for high school.

"So I called Dr. Hooley and said, 'Do you want me to call all these parents and tell them we've changed (the rules)?' We'd already been in school more than a month," Gault said. "He said, 'We'll exempt you this year since you've already given out the information.'"

Karen Gasser, a Coronado parent, was shocked to hear La Cima received a grace period.

"I don't know how they can do that. I find that ludicrous," she said. "The trouble is, the person who did this is Hooley, and he's gone."

At Richard B. Wilson K-8 School, 2330 W. Glover Road, a spring meeting similar to that between CDO and Cross was held.

"In April, us, Coronado and Ironwood (Ridge High School) got together to decide how we would handle our relationship. It was decided we would stick to what we'd talked about with (Ironwood Principal Sam) McClung before, that these students would get math credit, graded," said Wilson math teacher Chantelle Elliott. "Then in August we were told we would do it (the new way) by Dr. Hooley. I know there was a meeting Aug. 15, and supposedly teachers were invited, but none of the principals understood it - they understood they were to bring a parent. Teachers are upset they weren't invited to give input. Then we were told by Hooley to change it.

"We asked for another meeting with him, and that was on Sept. 17," Elliott continued. "We went there to discuss the concerns we had with the (changes). We got final word in November, so we notified parents that the new way is what we were doing. Of course, the parents are upset, because these kids enrolled under a different set of assumptions."

Hooley confirmed parents were angry.

"In the fall, I had several upset parents call me from Wilson, but after I explained the rational and reasoning behind it, they calmed down," he said.

Christi Talmage represented Wilson as a parent at the Aug. 15 meeting at Principal Adrian Hannah's request. She has a child in accelerated math at the school and also teaches sixth-grade mathematics.

"In my opinion we were led down a road by the district administration … the indication was that we would have a discussion about possible changes, but actually what they did was present their material and the reasoning behind it," Talmage said. "There was a forum for us to speak, but they weren't looking for what we had to say. I'm a laid back person … but I felt it was a shame that (the advanced math) teachers weren't there because math teachers, of all people, have the best insight as to what is going on."

Perhaps the biggest problem has been at Coronado where, because of the small number of students qualifying for the honors geometry-trigonometry class, class is held before school opens each morning. Seventeen students - including Anderson's son - were notified in a May 24, 2002 letter that they would be enrolled in "Coronado's most challenging math class … high school honors geometry/trigonometry, a class for which your child will earn a grade point average based on the high school honors 5-point scale … to compensate for this extra hour of instruction, we will give our honors geo/trig students first refusal rights on a handful of popular student aide positions around the campus."

Parents and students alike did not complain about the early morning class, even though it meant most of them have to get up at 5:30 a.m. to make a 6:30 a.m. bus run to the 7:15 a.m. class.

"What we don't like is the fact that they decided in the middle of the year," said Gasser, who has a student in the geo-trig class. "Our kids are up at dawn and busting their butts to make good grades in that class thinking it would help them in high school and now they are told it won't count. That is supposed to motivate them?"

Michael Warrick, the Coronado teacher who instructs the accelerated students, said parents are frustrated with good reason.

"I totally understand why parents are upset," he said. "From my viewpoint, I'm high-school certified, so the students should get high school credit as math and not necessarily as pass/fail."

The notification of the change at Coronado was the latest in the district, except for notification to parents at Amphi Middle School, which still hasn't occurred, said Karen Goldberg, administrative assistant to Amphi Middle School Principal Charles Bermudez. Coronado parents weren't notified until Jan. 9.

"It was my understanding at the meeting in August that there was still some question as to when it would all be starting, like would it apply to this year," said Coronado Principal Cathy Eiting. "But there was a consensus - and there was lots of free dialogue at the meeting - that this is what we would do (change the credit system for accelerated middle school math). I did tell my teacher there would be a change and he told the students and I guess we thought the students were telling the parents. I honestly thought I had a letter sent out in September, but then I started hearing complaints later from parents and I realized maybe a letter hadn't gone out. That is when (we) sent out the letter in January."

Warrick said he "knew the decision was made, or that they were close to doing it, but I didn't know how final it was" until hearing from Eiting sometime in the fall.

"I'd gone to some meetings in the summer with Dr. McClung and Wilson math representatives and at that level we were discussing if these were honors classes. That is what (Wilson algebra teacher) Ms. Elliott and I were arguing - these are high school honors courses, and we felt the students should get credit for that," Warrick said. "And I thought that's what we left it and then, next thing I know we have gone from honors level credit to elective credit. There was no meeting where we could offer our input … I didn't make this decision and I don't agree with this decision."

Jill Devaroux was the parent representative from Coronado at the August meeting. She has a son in Warrick's class.

"For my part, I thought (the August meeting) was just a discussion meeting and we left that meeting thinking that nothing had been decided at all, so I didn't expect to get this letter in January," Devaroux said. "It really didn't surprise me, since that's how the discussion was headed, but I thought we were supposed to have another meeting."

Devaroux has no problem with changing the system, just the timing of it.

"I think the kids who are in these classes this year should get credit and a grade for it," she said. "I can understand why they are doing it because kids are dropping out of high school classes, but the kids who are already there, who went in thinking the rules were one way, they should get a grade. They started under the guise that this would count for high school and now the rug is being pulled out from under them."

Gasser realized there was a change underway in November when she read an Ironwood Ridge High School newsletter featuring a notice from McClung announcing that the middle school change would be retroactive and affect Ironwood's current freshman and sophomore classes.

"For students who attended CDO as freshmen - our juniors currently - we use CDO rules for that year," said McClung, explaining those students will keep the credits they earned in middle school that are now on their high school transcript. "But for current freshman and sophomores, we are applying a unified rule to the way middle school credits are handled because those kids came to our school when our rules were essentially on hold while Dr. Hooley decided what was going to happen."

McClung said he met with district officials before Ironwood opened two years ago to discuss how he wanted middle school accelerated credits to be handled and "when Dr. Hooley realized that our philosphy differed from what was happening at CDO, he told us to wait. So we consider that we were on hold and that is why we will apply the rule (retroactively)."

CDO registrar Betty Voorhees said they do not go back and "change information on a transcript."

"Letter grades have only been given to math beyond algebra I, but if there is a grade that has been transferred, then that is what stays," she said.

Wendel said his understanding of the change was that the rule that was in effect last year - when this year's eighth-graders were in seventh grade - is the rule that will be applied to the classes taken last year. If a child has been in algebra I in seventh grade and now is in either algebra II or geometry in eighth grade, when that student transfers to high school, she "will come to us with one math credit and one elective credit," he said.

When asked if the district allows the new procedure to be applied retroactively, assistant superintendent Nelson said, "Our practice is for this not to be retroactive."

Nelson said he think the change has really only caused problems at "one school where the communication was not as good as we would have liked," and that there were sufficiently strong arguments to implement the change.

"In some cases, parents were inadequately contacted about this issue and there has been some upset," Nelson said. "In a perfect world, we would have communicated this change prior to any action … we're going to make every effort to make this as workable as possible for everyone concerned."

Amphi boardmember Patricia Clymer, when told of the situation, said it sounded like "there was a problem in communication."

"I don't know any of the details, this is the first I've heard of this, so I really can't comment," Clymer said. "But I would hope we would be consistent in our policies at all the schools. If a mistake's been made, I think it is important that we look into it and try to fix it. If Patrick Nelson says we're going to look at it, I'm sure we will."

Board President Nancy Young Wright said she'd received a memo about the situation Friday.

"I need more information … it might have been appropriate that the board would have had information sooner," Young Wright said. "I will be looking into this. It sounds to me like we should have been more consistent. I would imagine that some of this is the transition (between administrators) and we have flattened the administration down a lot and we've been overworking our staff at the top level to a pretty harsh extent. I'm sure no one intended to create turmoil, but it sounds like we need to give people the opportunity to discuss this."

Amphi Superintendent Vicki Balentine did not return calls for comment. Her secretary referred all questions to Nelson.

Editor's note: Staff writer Renee Schafer Horton's daughter is a student in the honors math class at Coronado K-8 School.

FOUR YEARS OF MATH BEST, DISTRICT SAYS

by Rene Schafer Horton

The recent decision by Amphitheater Public Schools to change the way middle school mathematics is credited at high schools was spurred in part by statistics at Canyon del Oro High School showing that accelerated middle school students do not take four years of math in high school.

Robert Wendel, CDO assistant principal for counseling, said there are currently 173 seniors at CDO who took accelerated math in eighth grade. Of those, only 98 enrolled in math this year.

"That means that 56 percent of the students who were accelerated dropped out of math in their senior year," Wendel said. "This has been the trend we've noticed over the years and it is exactly opposite of what we want for these kids."

Students in middle school accelerated math are normally college-bound, Wendel said. While the state of Arizona only requires two years of high-school mathematics for graduation, most universities require four years. If students take math in middle school for high-school mathematics credit (as opposed to receiving elective credit only), they can then opt out of math during their last two years of high school and still have enough credits for university requirements.

But will they have enough knowledge?

"It is a detriment for their preparation for college to not take math in their junior and senior year," Wendel said. "We felt we were actually doing them a disservice offering math credit at middle school."

Withholding a grade or math credit for accelerated middle school mathematics, "kind of forces students to keep taking math throughout high school," he added.

Former Amphi Associate Superintendent Richard Hooley, who was instrumental in the change, said counting middle school courses for high school credit is a "disincentive for students to go forward."

"The whole point of accelerated courses is to advance the student's aptitude, not for them to quit early," Hooley said in a phone interview from his superintendent's job in New York. "This was an attempt to provide a unified procedure to encourage kids to take challenging courses all through high school."

Shawna Bennett, whose son Tyler takes an honors geometry/trigonometry class in the district, said she doesn't agree accelerated middle schoolers will drop out of math in high school.

"Just from the perspective of my son, the way he processes math amazes me," Bennett said. "I can't see him dropping out of math classes in high school - that is his favorite subject. He loves math, and that's why he's in this class. He'd be bored if he was in a lower-level class."

Because Arizona leaves curriculum control to local districts, each school can decide how it handles accelerated middle school math credits, said Amy Rezzonico, the public information officer at the Arizona State Board of Education.

Amphi decided in August to put all schools on the same page by announcing that accelerated math credits taken at the middle school level would hereafter be transferred to high school as ungraded, elective credit. This decision placed the district in line with practices at other county schools, said Kim Fields, program coordinator with the Pima County Superintendent of Schools.

Arizona requires that algebra I and geometry be taken consecutively, a change that went into effect "a few year ago," Fields said. Up to that point, the sequence was algebra I, algebra II and then geometry. Algebra I and geometry are normally taken in ninth and tenth grade, respectively, but can be moved to middle school if the school has a certified high school math teacher to offer the class, Fields explained.

"In this county, it is my experience that (high schools) don't give math credit for accelerated math classes taken in middle school," she added.

Richard Anderson, who has an eighth-grader taking geometry in the district, said he feared the district's decision was less about getting in line with other school districts and more about "protecting the rice bowl."

"They are making sure there are enough kids taking upper-level classes in high school to fund those teachers," he said.

Nonsense, said Chris Yetman, chairman of the CDO math department.

"There's no chance that is happening," he said. "I have 32 kids in my (advanced placement) calculus class and we continue to see an increase in students wanting AP credits. We're not worried at all about having enough kids (to fund teachers)."

According to documentation from Hooley, there is a nationwide debate concerning whether middle school students are ready for the complex reasoning required in upper level mathematics. In addition, taking accelerated math classes for elective, non-graded credit has advantages. For instance, students still earn credit toward high school graduation and therefore "will be able to move more quickly to weighted honors courses at the high school, which may help students earn higher grade-point averages for college admission." In addition, not sending a grade to high school allows students to start their high school GPA with their peers and avoids penalizing students for "reaching high" in middle school and getting a low grade.

Sam McClung, principal of Ironwood Ridge High School, said a meeting among administrators, teachers and a handful of parents in August showed there was "a strong belief by middle school parents and teachers that those students were too young to be penalized for poor performance."

Yetman said it is important to focus on facts about the nature of mathematics and childhood developmental capabilities.

"There is absolutely no need for a student to come in here with math credits," he said. "The bottom line is that the majority of middle schoolers are not ready to be accelerated and it is OK to be normal - you can still get into excellent colleges if you never accelerate in middle school."

Christi Talmage, who has taught pre-algebra classes at Richard B. Wilson K-8 school agreed, saying "by no means" are the majority of the students in the advanced classes ready for advanced math at middle school.

"We've discovered holes in their learning - and in the math curriculum," Talmage said. "They get to me and I try to do long division and my heavens! They don't even know how to do that. They've been moved up into higher math, moved right past the basics. A lot of kids are surviving day to day, quiz to quiz, test to test."

Cross Middle School Principal Rob Vinyard agreed.

"My experience in middle school is that they can conceptually understand it, but when they try to apply it, they have a hard time," he said.

Although Wendel emphasized that parents don't have to accelerate their children in middle school, Talmage said they are almost forced to.

"They are funneled into these classes (accelerated middle school classes) because we lack choices," she said. "They are put in pre-algebra by the end of fifth grade if they are (advanced at all) and then just moved up each year because there is nothing in between regular middle school math and high school math."

Yetman said not having enough options is a problem, but acceleration is not necessarily the answer.

"There are a few - not nearly the number we are seeing - who are ready for advanced mathematics in middle school, and we should provide for them," Yetman said. "But … there seems to be a tendency for parents to believe all students are above average. I call it the 'Lake Wobegon Effect.' Your kid is above average and if they aren't accelerated, something is wrong. But there is nothing wrong with being normal."

Bennett said there are parents who push kids unnecessarily, but she doesn't know if it is the majority.

"Personally, I'm proud of (my son), I think it is great he's being challenged, because if he wasn't, he might be bored and get into trouble," she said. "I brag to my mom or dad, and I've encouraged him to stick the class out because he needs to be challenged and of course, I want him to go to a good (college), but if he says he doesn't get it or it is too hard, I won't push him."

Anderson said he "can't deny that I take a certain amount of pride in Michael being in this class," but he didn't ask for his son to be placed there and he doesn't "think it is a status thing for most good parents … it isn't status that is the problem, it is changing the rules in the middle of the year."

CDO Principal Michael Gemma said parents shouldn't be upset with the change if they are having their children accelerated "for the right reason."

"Are they doing it so the child will have more math options in high school? If so, taking it in middle school is worth the work without getting math credit. If they are doing it for another reason, they need to think twice," Gemma said.

Rob Bennett, Shawna Bennett's husband, said it should be the school district that thinks twice.

"One of the biggest problems that our society has is (figuring out if) we have faith and trust in our public education system," said Bennett, a high school social studies teacher in the Marana Unified School District. "I don't know if changing rules three months after class has started reinforces the trust we want our kids to have in what the system tells them. They have to believe the system is working in their best interest and I'm not convinced it is in this case."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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