NEW PORT RICHEY
Betsy Valentine's portable classroom at Chasco Elementary buzzes with the chatter of third-graders talking math.
One group of six sits at a table with Valentine exploring equivalent fractions. Another small group creates designs using small wooden geometric shapes and then challenges the others to recreate them using the same number of pieces.
Others lie on the floor figuring algebraic equations. Some deal out cards and then calculate the average. Yet others roll dice and use different math functions to come up with the largest result.
After 15 minutes, the students shift, with Valentine getting another group of six whom she helps not with fractions but with multiplication while the rest of the class keeps working at stations — though many of them hardly consider it work at all.
"I like doing this," 8-year-old Blake Deshazer said of his teacher's independent style of math instruction. "You're in control of everything you're doing. She's not saying, 'Now class, do 5 x 6 x 25.' "
That's for sure. Valentine — Pasco's 2009 math teacher of the year — adheres to the philosophy that "proximity is key," meaning that small groups with more focus on each students' needs yields better results. Her method has proven so successful that Chasco leaders have encouraged all their teachers to adopt it.
Not only that, other schools are sending teams to Chasco to look into how they can use it. Three scheduled visits came in the past week alone, with more planned for this week. With money tight, finding ideas that work within other local schools is one cost-effective way for schools to improve the way they serve students.
"We're always looking for something new," said Gulf Trace Elementary principal Hope Schooler, who brought seven teachers to Chasco on Wednesday for a daylong investigation of small-group math. "We want to see what they are doing in math that seems to be working."
To many educators, the notion of moving to small-group instruction for math makes a lot of sense once they see it in action. They already use small groups and center-based activities for reading, so they can better pinpoint their lessons to students' needs.
"Reading scores are going up," said Gulf Trace K-1 teacher Audrey D'Amico. "Let's try what works in a different area."
Gulf Trace 4-5 teacher Sandra Rivera was sold before visiting a single classroom.
"I think it's really going to motivate the kids to learn math," Rivera said. "Right now we have about 70 percent who are motivated, but the remaining 30 percent, the minute you mention the word math, they turn off. These kids are really going to be targeted."
The classroom visits pushed the visiting teachers' interest to even higher levels.
They watched with amazement as the students challenged themselves to perform tougher, more in-depth math skills which seemed more like games than class work. They snagged copies of lesson plans, supply lists and other items they can use to put the concept in play, perhaps even before the end of this year.
Chasco assistant principal Judy Cosh urged the teachers to observe Valentine's classroom as well as others.
Valentine has nearly perfected the system over several years and this year has seen great gains. When the year began, 37 percent of her students were at grade level. By year's end, 94 percent were there, with 67 percent of the class at the equivalent of Level 5 on the FCAT.
"Variation is so key," Cosh said. "You have to do what is right for you and your students."
Jumping in too fast can lead to chaos, disappointment and an abandoned practice, not because it doesn't work but because you can't control it.
"Find what will work for you," Cosh stressed.
Chasco third-grade teacher Jomary Schulz agreed. She said it took her a couple of years to feel comfortable using the method, which she learned from Valentine.
Now, she feels like a pro. And her student gains show it, too.
At the start of this year, none of Schulz's 17 students were at grade level in math. By the end of the year, 71 percent of them were at grade level or above.
"The kids are engaged. They love it," she said. "They keep each other on track. … They're learning the content before it's ever taught … so we can dig deeper into the concepts."
Valentine developed her system after seeing that group instruction wasn't reaching all of the students. She admitted that the daily small-group math instruction does make for more work, as she must create more variety of lessons for the different achievement levels of her students.
"It makes me have to stay very organized and on top of things," she said. "But I feel like in the past I was kind of penalizing children" by forcing them to sit through a lecture, whether they already understood the material or not. "If you know something, why am I going to teach it to you?"
The kids' response validated the effort though, both in their strong scores and their attitude.
"I do love math," said 9-year-old Isabela Flores, as she worked on geometry problems that she was stunned to learn are eighth-grade material. "Even though I sometimes do bad at math, I still love it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.