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Winter Break Academy Keeps Students on Track in Math

Recent research shows that middle school is a critical time for doing well in math.  The study released by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd shows that many California seventh graders who struggle with math, have no clear path to future success in the subject. A local program uses this winter break from school  to keep students on track in math.

A room normally reserved for meetings at Graniterock, a Watsonville based construction and mining company, is buzzing.  45 middle school students sit in rows, pencils in hand trying to figure out the riddle on math quiz.  Six teachers roam ready to help.  Each problem solved unlocks a letter to reveal the answer to the riddle, and first to finish gets a prize.  This is one way you keep a group of middle school kids engaged after they’ve given up six days of their winter break to study Algebra for seven hours a day.

This is the Algebra Academy, a partnership between Graniterock and Cal State Monterey Bay, KAZU’s parent institution.  Graniterock’s Kevin Jeffery serves as Principal of the Academy.  “This is about building up their confidence level as math students, so when they get to high school, and the encounter Trigonometry for the first time, they know they can tackle it,” said Jeffery.  The Academy shows students how Algebra connects to high level math like Trigonometry and Calculus, and why Algebra is important well beyond the eighth grade. CSUMB Professor Hongde Hu developed the curriculum.  He says Algebra is like a language.  “When you practice more, you will get a proficiency, and make a connection to the real world,” said Hu.  He connects Algebra to real world by having the students work through questions like:  what are the odds of winning the state lottery? And how can you determine the value of a used car based on the price of a new one?

Hu chairs the Math Department at CSUMB.  When he started teaching at the University, he found many incoming freshman needed help with Algebra.  “Algebra is the gateway for any science major.  If they don’t do well in Algebra, they don’t have success for any science major,” said Hu.  So after launching a remedial math program at the University, he looked for ways to address the problem in the community.  Three years ago he partnered with Graniterock to bring the Algebra Academy to Watsonville and Aromas students.  The idea spoke to a passion of the Graniterock’s late CEO, Bruce Woolpert.  His widow Rose Ann says he loved math and his hometown of Watsonville. “Bruce really felt that business was not separate from a community. If you don’t have a community thriving than the businesses aren’t going to thrive,” said Rose Ann Woolpert.

As part of connecting Algebra to the real world, students hear from a Graniterock employees on how they use math in their jobs.  Kevin Jeffrey says every job at Graniterock requires some sort of math.  “Well, I’m a lawyer here and I use math,” said Jefferey. “In the construction industrythere’s always a challenge to find the next generation of employees. So absolutely, there’s always an interest in building up these core skills in our local students,” he continued.  As she puts down her pencil from the math quiz, Rolling Hills Middle School student Nuria Garcia says she could do other things with her winter break, but “for college it will look pretty good that I went to an Algebra Academy,” said Garcia. Eighth grader Julie Quintana also didn’t mind giving up a few days. “I learned some stuff that I didn’t fully know, and now a I know,” said Quintana.

Rolling Hills teacher Nicholas Bugayong has helped at the Academy in past years.  He says when students return to school later this month there will be a noticeable difference.  “They can go a lot faster, further.  The have something to pull back on,” said Bugayong.  The Algebra Academy ends this week with a math class at Cal State Monterey Bay. 

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.