Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment in an ongoing series focused on the Chehalis School District and the success of its Student Achievement Initiative, which was launched in 2013. The full series can be found at chronline.com/schools.
In recent years, the Chehalis School District has seen significant success improving student graduation rates and higher educational achievement as part of its Student Achievement Initiative (SAI). But even as the district has managed to improve student outcomes in some areas, one area where it has consistently struggled to improve student performance is math.
“When I came and started looking at data for the Chehalis School District, (I saw) we had great graduation rates. … I also noticed our math scores were not great,” said Christine Moloney, Chehalis School District superintendent.
The district’s challenges with math are not unique, however. Across the country, school districts have struggled to improve math scores.
“Certainly, math is a challenge. It's been a problem everywhere, but it’s been really a problem for us,” said Jim Lintott, a wealth management adviser who graduated from W.F. West High School and is a major donor to the Chehalis Foundation.
Schools across the country have struggled to teach math. According to Lintott, there are a variety of factors behind the challenge math poses to the country, including the challenge of finding math teachers.
“It’s hard to get math teachers in America right now because if you’re good at math, you can get a good job in something else,” Lintott said.
To help overcome these challenges, the Chehalis School District has sought to instill a positive mindset toward math in its students.
“(We want to) try and change our messaging around math,” said Trisha Smith, assistant superintendent for the Chehalis School District.
Rachel Dorsey, principal at Orin Smith Elementary, echoed Trisha Smith’s desire to encourage young students in math, telling The Chronicle she wanted students to have a “positive math mindset” at Orin Smith Elementary, which teaches third, fourth and fifth graders.
One way the district has changed math education is through increasing student discourse in the classroom, an approach introduced to the district through its partnership with the BERC Group, an educational consulting firm Orin Smith connected the district with to improve student outcomes.
“As educators, we know that engaging students into their own learning (is the best method),” Trisha Smith said.
These changes have created what W.F. West High School math teacher Caty Lieseke referred to as a “trickle up effect.”
“(The district is) creating a way to help students have an environment where students can more openly share their thoughts,” she said.
According to Lieseke, by changing teaching methods to allow students to be more open in the classroom, children enter each new grade level with a different understanding. Some of the decline in math scores Chehalis faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, may have stemmed from a lack of in-class discussion by students when classes were held virtually.
“COVID made the idea of collaboration very difficult, so it feels like we’ve had to reteach them some,” said Lieseke.
But while changing teaching methods to promote student involvement has improved student learning in other subjects, more effort has been required for math.
“We have looked at improving our math tools,” Trisha Smith said.
The district has been putting more resources into math education at all grade levels, including through increased teacher training, more opportunities for students to receive help with math, new technology, expanded data collection and changes in curriculum.
One of the main ways the district has sought to improve math education has been through teacher training. In recent years, Chehalis connected its teachers with experts to improve their methods.
“Last summer and even through this year, we’ve been sending teachers to Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) conferences,” W.F. West STEM Coordinator Lynn Panther said.
According to Goble, AVID is a collection of teaching strategies designed to increase the number of students who enroll and succeed in higher education and in their lives beyond high school. These strategies allow educators to teach students academic and social skills to help them develop the habits needed to succeed in a rigorous curriculum. Part of AVID’s purpose is to close the achievement, expectation and opportunity gaps faced by many students.
“It empowers kids to take ownership of their learning, it helps teachers teach kids how to learn,” Panther said of AVID.
A few years ago, the district sent some teachers to Stanford University for a workshop on teaching math. The district has also had its math teachers work with researchers at the University of Washington. To further expand teacher understanding of student learning, math teachers at Chehalis also read books by education researchers.
By learning more about how students learn math, teachers have been able to change their teaching methods to better accommodate student learning styles, Panther said.
Moloney praised the district’s teachers as “fabulous” for their “passion” to continue learning how to improve their methods.
The district takes a similar out-of-classroom approach for helping students as well.
According to Dorsey, Orin Smith Elementary hired a math coach to help students. She also said the school was pushing students to attend math camps as a way to help students.
“Math is an area we’re really targeting,” Dorsey said.
Schools are also providing expanded math tutoring for students. According to Principal Chris Simpson, Chehalis Middle School offers after-school tutoring for math while the elementary school over tutoring in the morning before class starts.
Math teachers in Chehalis have also taken advantage of access to new technology to help students. According to Lieseke, students in the district now have access to Chromebooks from Google, allowing for students to use helpful technology while learning math.
“Chromebooks have been a big tool for opening access to technology for students,” Lieseke said.
A major part of the district’s effort to improve student math performance has been through data collection.
“We’re looking at our screening tools and our data to make sure we’re collecting information going forward,” Trisha Smith said.
One of the primary tools the district has used to collect data on math education has been its “i-Ready” test. The test originated out of a need to get better information about what students know and don’t know about math. Originally given at Chehalis Middle School, the test expanded out to elementary schools as well.
The i-Ready test is given to students from Kindergarten to eighth grade three times per school year in the fall, winter and spring; it is used to track student progress on math concepts across grade levels.
According to Rick Goble, director of student achievement for the district, i-Ready allows the district’s educators to look at past student performance to see if there are ways to change curriculum to adapt to student needs at a given time. The test then helps teachers group students by need. By administering the test throughout the year, teachers are able to see who’s on track for math and who’s not, allowing them to provide individualized education.
“What’s difficult is that you do it and you use it,” Goble said, emphasizing the importance of actually using the data to help students.
The district has been able to get data on student math performance from Centralia College.
“We’ve worked with faculty at Centralia College and we looked at data from students at Centralia College from W.F. West to see if they’ve been successful and figure out why,” Trisha Smith said.
By having access to the data, teachers are able to change their teaching methods to fit student needs from year to year. According to Moloney, it’s crucial to ensure teachers have tools such as i-Ready to ensure they can be effective in their methods.
“Teaching changes over time, we’re always trying to be open and flexible to teacher needs (and) student needs,” Panther said. “We’re going to take a hard look at data and hopefully we’ll be able to identify some data we’ll be able to focus on.”
The district has also sought to better coordinate and manage its math curriculum across schools and grade levels. As part of this effort, the district created math committees, called Math Leadership Teams, at the school and district levels. These committees consist of teachers and administrators who discuss how to improve math education in the district. According to Simpson, the teams seek to help teachers across the district use a common language for math and find ways to encourage students to participate in discourse during math classes.
“The year of COVID we launched a math leadership team that is a K-12 team that includes school administrators and teachers. We have representatives from Green Hill that come. … We try to get all the voices in the room,” Panther said. “The aim of this group is to try to create a platform where we can have open, honest conversations about math in the district … look intentionally at what’s working, what isn’t and (to be) making some plans on what we can do as a system.”
According to Panther, the team consists of about 25 to 30 members from across the district. Originally, it consisted of a couple teachers from each building, she said. Now, it consists of teachers from almost every grade level and people from the district office.
“I think initially it was just creating a team,” Panther said. “We took some deep dives looking at trends and concerns that were at all grade levels.”
The district has also engaged in what Goble calls “scope and sequence,” in which the district looks at each grade level to see what is taught in math and what can be done to further improve student outcomes.
“All the curriculum, all the standards, and then month by month how they are being taught,” Goble said.
According to Moloney, scope and sequence is used to answer the question, “are we teaching things at the right time and for the right length of time?”
The changes the district has implemented have led to a significant improvement in the way students are taught math in the Chehalis School District.
“The instruction now would be higher quality than before (the SAI),” Panther said.
But with Chehalis students still catching up to where they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains unclear how much of an impact the changes to the district’s math education will have.
While the district continues to look for ways to improve its math education, Goble is currently working on three-, five- and seven-year plans for the district’s math goals. According to Goble, the district is currently trying to improve the math proficiency rate in its elementary schools and at Chehalis Middle School.
At W.F. West, the district is currently trying to improve student math scores while increasing the number of students taking advanced math classes.
In keeping with the SAI central goal of improving outcomes for students and graduates, Goble is also looking into offering math classes that would be more applicable to different careers.
“I think about CTE, and you have a kid who wants to be an electrician, why couldn't we have some applied math classes that are very specific to the skills they need to be an electrician?” Goble asked.
One of his goals as director of student achievement is to find ways to improve math education in the district while giving students more opportunities to prepare for careers, he said.
“How do we create a system to better serve our students in regards to college and careers,” Goble asked. “I want to find ways we can be a leader in math instruction that enables students to be better prepared for their careers wherever they go.”
While Chehalis hasn’t managed to reach their goals for math yet, district officials are optimistic.
“No one has an answer for what to do with math yet,” Moloney said. “(But) I believe in Chehalis we’ll be the first to figure math out.”
Moloney told The Chronicle her goal of improving the district’s math education is based in part on her desire for math to not be a barrier to students that could force them to change what they want to do with their lives.
For Lintott, improving Chehalis’ math education is a necessity in ensuring W.F. West graduates are able to compete in the future job market.
“The reality is that everybody is a math person, we don’t let people say ‘oh reading’s hard so I’m not going to learn to read.’ … Math is the language of the future,” Lintott said. “It’s not a question of whether or not we’re going to do it. We have to do it.”
Achieving Success is the title of an ongoing series of stories focused on the Chehalis School District and its Student Achievement Initiative. Look for more installments in upcoming editions of The Chronicle. The series will be compiled at chronline.com. Reporter Matthew Zylstra is a W.F. West High School graduate.