Lorlesha Bryant loves a challenge. That’s what got the Algebra I teacher into mathematics.
“I love to figure out the unknown and with algebra,” she said, sitting in her classroom at Andrew Jackson High School. “Algebra is full of unknowns and when you give me a problem and tell me that there’s something that we don’t know, I like to fix that problem.”
She’s been teaching at the high school for seven years now, where like many math teachers, her biggest challenge has been finding ways to instill that same passion for formulas, binomials and factorials in her students.
“We have letters, letters and numbers and we got these formulas… so they get intimidated because it looks hard,” she said.
In fact, it’s a challenge facing schools across the district and the state, according to Don Pemberton, Director of University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning in the College of Education.
“The overall failure rate, right now, if you counted eighth and ninth graders is about 40 percent are failing it statewide of all the students,” he said.
That number jumps to nearly 50 percent among the state’s ninth graders, Pemberton said.
“Those that are taking it in the ninth grade are failing at a much higher rate,” he said. “It’s those students that we really want to focus our efforts in helping them to pass.”
This summer, students in the district who struggle most will be getting some extra help through an online program Pemberton developed with tech-provider Study Edge and several other educators across the state.
It’s called Algebra Nation — a 24/7 online one-stop shop for high school students taking Algebra I. It was developed back in the summer of 2012, but this summer it will be offered to students in the form an interactive camp for the first time.
The program allows students to work through problems at their own pace with the aid of interactive videos, a Facebook-style wall post section, and a team of UF experts, teachers and fellow classmates on-call at all hours. There are even opportunities for students to earn points for helping other students on the site. Raking in enough so-called “Karma” points, can earn students a brand-new Apple iPad.
Bryant said a big part of the appeal for students is the privacy of it all.
“No one knows that they can’t understand it,” she said.
Andrew Jackson High School was one of the first schools in the state to pilot the program in January 2013, with Bryant and fellow teacher Sabrina Hall helping spearhead the effort in Duval County.
Now, the online mathematics program serves about 250,000 students and nearly 4,000 teachers in all 67 districts. This summer, Duval County will become the first district to launch an on-site summer camp.
Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the summer program will target below-grade-level eighth-graders.
“They’ll be part of a summer program to catch them up so that they can eventually pass algebra in 9th grade and that is a graduation gatekeeper. In addition, those kids that failed the end-of-course exam after ninth grade would participate as well,” he said.
The camp is being funded by $2 million state dollars recently approved during the legislative session. The details of when and where the camp will take place are still being finalized.
“I think at the end of the day, it’s just more access to kids who are struggling with math,” Vitti said. “It will allow us to continue to increase our graduation rate because Algebra I is a gatekeeper when it comes to meeting all high school requirements to get a diploma.”
At Jackson High School, about 38 percent of students who took the Algebra I End-of-Course exam (EOC) passed in 2013 and 2012, according to the Florida Department of Education. That’s up from 18 percent in 2011.
In terms of whether or not Algebra Nation is having a direct effect on student improvement, Hall says it’s still hard to tell.
“In terms of seeing a difference in the students, it’s kind of hard for me to answer that because we push so hard for our kids to want to enjoy math and want to love math and we’re finding so many different ways for them to do it," she said. "I will agree that Algebra Nation has definitely been a tool to help us to get there."
However, the hard data is coming soon. UF officials say they are working on a statewide study of the program and expect to release a report this summer.
In the meantime, Bryant said she is focused on the task at hand: Helping students get a grasp on math, one problem at a time.
“For that kid to say at the end, ‘Wow, I used to hate math, but now, I like it just a bit,’ or ‘Ms. Bryant, thank you for allowing me to learn math’…that really just does something to me,” she said.
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.