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A collaboration hopes to help seventh-graders in Pinellas County master Algebra I

The Pinellas school district will have a trio of allies this fall as it increases its efforts to get middle school students fired up about math.

SRI International, the Helios Foundation and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg will partner with the district in a half-million-dollar project to get more kids ready for Algebra I by the end of seventh grade.

The initiative will merge high-tech software with cutting-edge curriculum and top-notch teacher training. It comes as Pinellas works to move more students to grade level and beyond in math and to encourage them to take higher-level math classes in middle and high school.

"The minimum (state) standard to graduate from high school requires students to take Algebra I, but that will no longer get them into college," said Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen. "We need to establish the expectation that every child will take Algebra I in middle school."

Janssen, who began her career as a middle school math teacher in the 1980s, was impressed with a Texas project conducted by SRI International, a California-based nonprofit research organization with offices in St. Petersburg.

Over a two-year span, a group of 95 Texas teachers from 74 schools used SimCalc, a digital software similar to the kind used in Pinellas.

The interactive software creates models students can manipulate to better learn math concepts such as proportionality.

When the software was bolstered by professional development and a curriculum geared to the state's math standards, Texas students saw a 46 percent improvement in their math scores, according to SRI data.

Many of the students were poor and spoke English as a second language.

SRI hopes to produce similar results in Pinellas — and sustain them. "We don't want this to be another flash in the pan," said Phil Vahey, a senior research scientist in SRI's California office.

The Helios Education Foundation, a group with offices in Tampa that has funded more than $66 million in education initiatives in Florida and Arizona since 2004, agreed to provide $400,000 for the first year of the five-year project.

Along with a $200,000 infusion from the district, that's enough money to get 15 teachers at seven Pinellas middle schools up and running.

Using SimCalc materials and Geometer's Sketchpad software embedded with Florida's new mathematics standards, students will work under the guidance of teachers trained by USF St. Petersburg professors.

"This is an opportunity to build on our collaboration, and on the collaboration SRI has established with the community," said Helene Levine, the school's regional vice chancellor for external affairs.

Hank Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the professional development piece is what makes the difference when digital software is used to deliver math instruction.

"The simulation can give you quite a teachable moment," Kepner said.

Janssen is convinced that the combination of curriculum, technology and teacher training will be the key to moving students beyond lackluster FCAT scores in math.

"We're going to narrow the focus of what the kids will have to learn, and we're designing the curriculum directly to the state standards," she said. "In my opinion, this is the best framework for teaching math."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413. Times staff writer Ron Matus and Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

The partnership contributions

Pinellas School District: $200,000; Helios Foundation: $400,000; SRI International: the curriculum; USF St. Petersburg: teacher training

Room to grow

Percent of middle school students performing at grade level or above in math

Pinellas State

6th grade 67 66

7th grade 68 67

8th grade 56 54

Source: Florida Department of Education

A collaboration hopes to help seventh-graders in Pinellas County master Algebra I 08/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 12:10am]

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