The math department at Bell Junior High School will be an example for San Diego city school officials as they begin to design a plan that they hope will become the most advanced yet in their ongoing education-reform movement.
The achievements at Bell, where the number of students taking college-preparatory math courses has grown from 63% to 93% in six years, symbolize the goal of the Board of Education's action earlier this week to go ahead with curriculum reform.
Over the next six months, a committee of teachers, parents and school planners will attempt to flesh out the reform proposal brought forward last month by board members Jim Roache and Dorothy Smith. The Smith-Roache plan, dubbed the "common core curriculum," is intended to give more students access to college-prep courses and help them succeed with better teaching and tutoring.
In large part, the core curriculum proposal crystallizes many of the debates before the board in the past several years over how to improve the quality of teaching for the 80% of the district's 115,000 students--a majority non-white--who take regular courses. It took the unusual pairing of Smith, a black concerned especially with the fate of minority students, with Roache, a conservative and the newest member, who sensed an overall lack of quality in many areas, to put the myriad of concerns into a single plan.
The board has a consensus that something needs to be done to improve education districtwide, building on what teachers at Bell and other schools are already attempting. But less unanimity exists over what should come out of the planning process for the core curriculum.
The pitfalls that the committee will encounter are clear. Among them:
- Will required tougher courses in English, math, history and science motivate more students or turn off more, resulting in more college-prepared pupils and more dropouts at the same time?
- Can teachers be persuaded to change their attitudes toward less-advanced students and give an extra effort to challenge pupils by offering more-interesting presentations of material and to provide necessary tutoring?
- Will vocational and fine arts courses fall by the wayside because students will not have enough time to take them, given the hard-core academic requirements?
By January, the committee will come back to the board with conclusions on how to apply a stronger curriculum to a greater number of students, perhaps using a pilot program in one or more schools.
"It's inevitable that we are moving slower" than she and Roach hoped, Smith said this week. "But after all, it has now taken 25 or 30 years for our curriculum to slowly deteriorate, and while we don't want to take that long (to rebuild), as long as we keep moving toward the tougher goal, I'll try not to be impatient."
A longtime math teacher at Bell and a strong believer that all children can learn more, Byron King, praised the board's action this week.
"I'm really excited about this," said King, who has helped improve Bell's math program and sits on several districtwide education committees. "This really is connected to the issues of equity and quality we've been talking about the past couple of years.
"But two or three years ago, I don't think this would have been seriously considered to the extent today . . . but (at Bell) we've had exciting things happening in access and achievement which show that it is possible to have large numbers of children achieve at algebra, for example."
King told the board that the Bell math program, over a six-year period, has resulted in a one-third gain in the number of students taking college-prep math courses. Before the sustained effort began, more than one-third of the ninth-graders were studying math courses unacceptable for admission to the University of California and California State University systems.
Difficult but Exciting
"It's difficult to accomplish but it can be done, and it is exciting," King said of the results at Bell, the largest junior high school west of the Mississippi River with 2,250 students, about 75% of them non-white.
King said the program has worked because teachers initiated it "and spent a lot of time debating how best to carry it out." For example, the math teachers at Bell have their bungalow classrooms arranged in facing rows, so that easy conversation can take place between teachers over problems that come up during lessons.
"It takes patience and understanding," King said. "What you are essentially doing with this proposal is looking at how to implement (state and national) reforms in all classrooms, how to get all students to be highly successful."
Addressing questions of motivation and failure, King said that a student who receives a grade of C or higher in pre-algebra is encouraged to take algebra the following year. If the student receives a D in pre-algebra, he and his parents are counseled to have the course repeated, preferably in summer school, so that algebra can still be attempted the next semester.