From: Cayata Dixon

For some, x plus y won't quite add up to z 

Extra algebra gets variable results

By Ray Quintanilla
Tribune education reporter

September 11, 2001

At the beginning of an intensive math class at Chicago's Taft High School, veteran 
teacher Theresa Wong gave her first assignment: an essay.

"Tell me in a paragraph, everything you know about algebra," Wong said, studying the 
faces of her students as if looking for clues about how the coming weeks would unfold.

A few minutes later, she got her answer.

"I don't remember anything," one student wrote.

"If I see algebra, I might remember it," another explained on a crumpled piece of 
paper. Several students simply scrawled a single phrase: "Help me!"

It is in rooms like this that the Chicago Public Schools system has focused its most 
aggressive effort in years to boost sagging high school math scores on standardized 

When it comes to math, Chicago schools are in crisis. Only 20 percent of the system's 
9th graders passed the algebra basic skills test last spring--and that's after they 
took the course.

But because the test is not a factor in whether a student passes the algebra class, 
students are allowed to move on anyway, passing the course even though they fail the 

Just as reading is a foundation for grammar school, algebra is needed for much of the 
coursework in high school. Teachers say students must master it by the 9th grade or 
it's unrealistic to expect them to tackle geometry, chemistry and calculus. And those 
are keys to the system's renewed efforts to prepare students for college.

Fail here, educators say, and the odds are great the student won't ever catch up. So 
Taft has put its best math teacher in with its most challenged students.

But when this course ended, some students were as lost as they were at the outset.

As Wong, a math major and Golden Apple scholarship award winner, stepped to the front 
of the class as it began, she was struck by the sight of so many students with glassy 

"Are they ready to learn? Can I motivate them," she asked herself.

Math scholars say nothing is quite as difficult as introducing troubled teens to 

It has rules. They don't.

It has discipline. They don't.

It has a correct answer. Students in this room struggle with right and wrong every 
day, yet they've learned life isn't always so clear cut. Right or wrong.

Explaining her rigid grading system at this point might scare them off, she reasoned. 
So she stood at the front of the room groping for a meaningful way to explain her 
mission for this summer session. "Look at all the people in the menial jobs out there 
in the city," she said.

"They know how to add, subtract and multiply. Algebra gets you to the next level. It 
requires you to use your brain, and that's when you can make a good living. You all 
need this."

At that moment, sophomore Samantha Morales was doodling in her notebook and chatting 
in the back of the room. Her mom wasn't so hot in algebra, she confided to a friend. 
So why would she be any different?

On his first day, 10th grader Mudassir Ali slipped into Wong's class staring at his 
shoes, a pattern he always followed.

As Wong moved about the classroom, she began to outline all she planned to cover: 
exponents, equations and negative numbers.

She wrote the fractions 3/8 and 3/4 on the blackboard, and asked which is greater.

First there was silence. Then chuckling. Someone flung a wad of paper at her feet.

In frustration she said "think of a pie. And on the bottom of the line is how many 
slices you have, and on top is the number you give away."

Morales said she remained silent because she didn't want to be the only person with a 
hand in the air. She knows this stuff. She doesn't need to review fractions, 7th grade 

"Isn't this algebra? Don't people already know this?" the girl kept telling 
herself.Morales, 15, hadn't always been regarded as at-risk. Her mother said the girl 
earned A's and B's in elementary school and just needed to "learn to focus."

Word problems strike fear

But the sight of a question like figuring out how long it would take to drive across 
the country at 45 m.p.h. would cause the girl to lose concentration, and sometimes 
break out in sweats.

"I get lost in that kind of thing," Morales recalled. "I didn't believe in myself, so 
I stopped going to math class last year. I got a little boy-crazy too."

Still, no student posed as daunting a challenge for Wong as Ali, 16, a boy who was 
brought to Chicago by his father last year after languishing in a crowded school in 
rural Pakistan.

It's there that he honed study skills that stunned his American teacher.

Wong needed only a few days to discern the sharp contrasts in the boy's life: Ali 
tried and tried but hardly ever got the right answers.

He generated the biggest stack of notes in the class. But he couldn't recall 
information when he needed it most.

"This boy is a model student and showing real effort," Wong said. "Something, though, 
is not sinking in. I don't know why."

Sometimes you have to just believe a student is learning, she said. There's no time to 
delve much deeper than that when everyone in the class needs so much help.

"I think I'm going to catch on, soon," Ali said, riffling through a stack of notes 
he's made from only two days in class. "Everyone at home is behind me. My father, my 
sister, they all tell me I can do this. I have to keep making notes, and studying."

Yet for all the progress Morales, Ali and others had made, Wong was jolted back to 
reality by the response to this simple word problem during class one morning:

"Bernadette has $3.25 in nickels and dimes. If she has 42 coins, find the number of 
each coin."

A hand shot up in the last row. "Mrs. Bong! Mrs. Bong! Uh, Mrs. Wong! Are you for 

Her face was flush, though not from the ribbing. How could they not know this--after 
all this time--she whispered under her breath.

Morales reached for a friend's calculator. Ali wrote the word problem down in his 
notebook. Again, and again.

Forty-five minutes later, Wong was still at the blackboard. A three-inch stick of 
chalk had worn down to a nub in her right hand.

Out of anger, a student knocked over a garbage can.

But the crash might as well have been the sound of her tough grading system hitting 
the scrap heap.

`Partial credit'

Wong began to worry they might all go down in flames unless she started cutting her 
students some slack, opening the door to a running conversation about awarding 
"partial credit" for work that was done incorrectly.

"Samantha, do you understand why there are 19 nickels and 23 dimes," Wong asked. "This 
is algebra in real life. You have to understand questions like this to pass."

Morales nodded. "I'm not exactly sure how I got it, but I got it," the girl said.

Ali was short by two dimes.

But the last test wasn't for another week, Ali said, and there was time to work 
through little problems like this.

"Sometimes I'm studying until midnight, and I still don't get it," the boy related, 
adding that he works hard because his father--a cabdriver--does the same to put food 
on the table every day.

"What else can I do," he said, walking out.

As they gather on the last day of class, Wong was careful not to be too encouraging. 
She had been up all night figuring grades, not wanting to believe this might be her 
first class to have more students who failed than passed.

No A's, several F's

Many entered the last week with a D average.

Of her 31 students, three were absent that day. Morales strode in a few minutes 
early--a first. Ali seemed to just appear in the room, and then collapsed at his desk 
in the rear.

Ali's father was waiting in the school parking lot for some news. At about the same 
time, Morales' mother sat at her kitchen table, nervously sipping coffee.

"This is bad news for some of you," Wong said, as students slumped in their seats. 
"There are no A's. But there are F's."

As Wong called students to the front of the room for a brief conference, each student 
handled the news differently.

Morales smiled. Ali bit his lip.

The student who tossed spitballs at the teacher was near tears.

"I'm feeling pretty good," Morales said, rubbing a bead of perspiration from her nose. 
"I got a B! I got a B!"

The summer had gone exactly as Morales wanted. Sure, there were some bad grades along 
the way, but a B did wonders for her confidence. "I'm feeling like I can do anything 
right now," she said, leaving Room 110 for the last time to board a CTA bus.

Ali tried to leave the room before his conference. But Wong huddled with him briefly 
on his way out.

"You tried your best," Wong said as the boy avoided making eye contact with her.

But Ali had passed, with a D.

Perhaps it was all of those nights studying. Maybe it was the partial credit.

None of that really mattered now, he said.

"The low grade, it doesn't bother me," Ali said, placing an arm around his father in 
the school parking lot. "I know this much, I don't have to take algebra any more."

Wong simply sat at her desk, tapping a pencil as the last student filed out.

"Do all of these students know algebra, I still wonder about that," Wong said as she 
picked up her personal belongings and packed them into a black knapsack. "They got 
through this class, that much I know."

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune

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