For a brief time last week, 14-year-old Rachael George owned an online shoe store called CoolShoes.com.
Her challenge: helping customers order shoes for friends and relatives even though they didn't know their shoe sizes.
Rachael, who just finished eighth grade at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, created a graph using sample data correlating height and shoe size. Using X's for men's sizes and O's for women's sizes, she plotted the data points. Then she drew an approximate "line of best fit" for each set of data.
The imaginary exercise was one of many that Rachael and about 125 other soon-to-be high school freshmen completed in a four-day program called Jump Start Algebra. Offered in Pinellas for more than a decade, the hands-on summer camp, held this year at Bayside High, was designed to prepare kids for algebra classes they'll take in the fall.
"We want them to find out algebra can be fun," said Candy Frewin, the district's math supervisor for middle and high schools. "This is a good opportunity to give them a taste of what will happen so they'll be more confident."
Ideally, Frewin said, students take Algebra I in eighth grade. It counts as high school credit, and those who complete it sooner have more chances to take advanced math classes before they graduate.
The district also offers eighth-graders an "algebra option" class, Frewin said. They get Algebra I credit if they reach certain benchmarks, but they're not penalized if they don't. They simply take Algebra I in ninth grade.
Yet about one-third of Pinellas students fail Algebra I the first time around, whether they take it as eighth-graders or ninth-graders, said former secondary math supervisor Suzie Quido.
"Students often do well in math through eighth grade, but algebra is more abstract," Quido said. "It demands a different skill set that many students don't have."
That deficit has been reflected in recent years in math FCAT scores. Only 64 percent of Pinellas ninth-graders and 66 percent of 10th-graders performed at grade level or above this year, according to scores released June 10.
Lakewood High teacher Diana Keller doesn't need FCAT scores to tell her that some students come to high school woefully unprepared for higher level math. Keller, who just completed her first year in the classroom, was surprised to find seniors in her Algebra I class.
"Kids used to need three math credits to graduate, but now they need four," Keller said. "If they miss a credit, they may have to take Algebra I and geometry at the same time."
Not only that, but colleges want to see Algebra I, geometry and Algebra II — at the very least — on high school transcripts. That's why initiatives like Jump Start Algebra are so important, Keller said.
Besides getting kids comfortable with algebra, 42 middle and high school math teachers provided individual attention this year in four areas, including algebraic thinking and study skills. They also taught students how to use a graphing calculator, a device that automatically generates graphs from data fed into it.
As a bonus for attending the four-day class, each student got to take home a TI-84 Plus graphing calculator. That was the big attraction for Arnesia Walker, 14.
"I would rather be at the mall, but this is saving my mom some money," said Arnesia, who will attend St. Petersburg High in August.
Former Coachman Fundamental Middle School student Elissa Pizzutto was happy to get the free calculator, but she's hoping to get more than that out of Jump Start Algebra once she gets to Palm Harbor University High.
"This will help me next year when I have to do harder problems," said Elissa, 14. "Everything builds on algebra."
Donna Winchester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8413.