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State education officials taking note of Waterford math curriculum

Waterford — In January, the state took great interest in the town's public schools.

First, the state Commissioner of Education, Miguel Cardona, and the president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, Jan Hochadel, visited Waterford High School and Oswegatchie Elementary School on Jan. 10. Then, on Jan. 30, the chief performance officer for the state Department of Education, Ajit Gopalakrishnan, came to Clark Lane Middle School.

Cardona's trip wasn't as specific as Gopalakrishnan's: He was in town for an area superintendents meeting at the LEARN facility in Old Lyme, the area's regional education service center.

"I wanted to take advantage of visiting schools in different parts of the state, so I called up (Tom Giard, Waterford superintendent of schools), and he was gracious enough to set up a tour of the schools here," Cardona said at the time. "I'm glad to be around the kids and the classrooms."

Gopalakrishnan traveled to Clark Lane Middle due to a significant bump in recent math test scores.

During Cardona's tour of Waterford High School, he stopped in classrooms of all disciplines and asked questions about initiatives at the school. He said he marveled at the new $212 million facility, built over a 10-year-period.

A troupe of students, administrators, Board of Education members and other interested parties strolled through the high school's halls. Student representatives Jalen Chappelle, a senior, and Lillie Abramowicz, a junior, stood by to answer questions. They are both deeply involved in extracurricular activities at the high school.

"Students were engaged, the work was authentic," Cardona said. "The connection between teachers and students was great. The building and the design of the high school is intentional about making sure students have opportunities for success, and it just seems like a warm community. A lot of positive energy in the building, I sense that too."

Gopalakrishnan and other state employees observed sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms on Thursday and spoke with teachers and students afterward.

The primary purpose of Gopalakrishnan's visit was part of an effort to determine how it can take Clark Lane's practices and spread them to other schools. In the past two years, the school has executed a shift to Illustrative Mathematics, an inquiry-based teaching model, and Khan Academy.

Eighth-grade math teacher Kelly Barnes has worked to usher in the supplementary use of Khan Academy, which "offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard," according to its website. Students often use Khan Academy for homework.

Barnes and fellow eighth-grade math teacher Christina DeCastro said Barnes has been using the tool for two to three years and has worked to convince teachers, students and administrators of its effectiveness. Impressive test scores, prompting a visit from the state, represented a sort of vindication for Barnes.

DeCastro and Barnes both noted that Khan Academy curriculum aligns with material students will see on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and other standardized tests. They also echoed Clark Lane Principal James Sachs: "The kids actually like math now."

The Khan Academy is the technological supplement to Illustrative Mathematics, which Sachs credits for rising test scores. He said illustrative math's inquiry model is what makes it valuable.

"We attribute our growth and achievement to a new way of teaching and a different set of resources," Sachs said. "The new way of teaching is called the inquiry model, where the kids get a phenomenon or problem and then in small groups try and solve that problem and share their work with the class."

According to Illustrative Mathematics' website, the non-profit organization puts together "high-quality, problem-based core curricula and professional learning resources that help teachers and students excel in teaching and learning mathematics."

Clark Lane's new strategy, which is in its second year, is taking aim at students who say they "suck at" math.

"The kids are now super enthusiastic about math," Sachs said. "I don't hear kids saying 'I hate math' anymore. They kind of see it as a challenge. We also have a redo/retake policy where kids can take assessments as many times as they need to to master it."

During a question-and-answer session with four students toward the end of the day, Gopalakrishnan and administrators asked the students, who had recently made the switch to the new model, how it was coming along, and what they liked about it.

"The transition was easy," said Melanie Martin, an eighth-grader. "I like more people's opinions on things. I used to be really bad at math, but I like it way better now. I didn't like seeing other people do it, I wanted to have my own screen and be able to do it on my own."

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