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At Marymount of Santa Barbara, Math Is No Problem

Students excel with an engaging method that raises the bar on achievement

When Marymount of Santa Barbara adopted Singapore math to invigorate an already strong math program six years ago, Marymount embarked on an effort that would have profound impact on the mathematical abilities of its students.

Rodney Lee had been trained in teaching Singapore math several years before becoming Marymount’s Lower School math and science specialist, and had been teaching Singapore math for two years with great success in the Los Angeles area.

“Singapore math is a term for a math curriculum originally designed by the Singapore Ministry of Education. The success of Singapore students on achievement tests performed by the International Study Center at Boston College earned the attention of educators and parents worldwide, especially in the United States.

It is a method of teaching math that engages a child to see math from different perspectives and incorporates math into everyday life. It exposes students to concepts that are beyond their grade or achievement level with the result of “raising the bar” gradually over time.

In addition to the Singapore math method of teaching math, Marymount’s Lower School math and science specialist enjoys using technology to support his math curriculum. Use of the internationally recognized Khan Academy is a fun enhancement to Lee’s classes.

“The success of the overall program is apparent in Marymount students transitioning from the lower to the middle school math program,” said Lyn Shirvanian, Marymount Middle School division head. “Each year, the level of rising Marymount students into middle school gets stronger now that several years of this curriculum have taken root.”

This is further supported by the fact that Marymount’s ERB scores show that many of Marymount’s students score in the top stanines of the ERB’s (the standardized test used by most private schools in the United States) math sections.

Marymount middle school offers different levels of math in every grade so that all student needs are addressed. Interactive Smart Board lessons, a variety of teaching methods and all sorts of incentives are used to appeal to different kinds and levels of learners. Through small group instruction, the teachers are able to inspire kind-spirited competition. Students create their own math “bumper stickers” — “Math Whizzes Are Acute” among them.

Students are rewarded with a special, one-on-one lunch with their teacher if they finish the math snake board (made up of hundreds of math problems that need to be solved to make progress) that weaves around the classroom walls. The idea in teacher Alexa Ratcliffe’s class is to enjoy math. The active learning is visible, and the enthusiasm it generates the classes is palpable.

“Math is my favorite subject,” seventh-grader Isabelle Doubleday said. “I really feel like it’s all making sense now.”

Tim Pearson, who teaches sixth-grade math, is known for his sense of humor and outrageous ties, teaches math classes that are seen by many students to be the highlight of their school days. The honors math program taught by Shirvanian is a highly sought-out program that starts in the sixth grade and allows eighth-graders to finish geometry before high school. Students leaving Marymount from the eighth grade have a great record of math achievement in high school.

Despite so much noteworthy success, Marymount Head of School Andrew Wooden is far from complacent with Marymount’s accomplishments in math. In a recent speech about the vision of the school, he expressed the desire for Marymount to continue to be a step ahead in its pursuit of the best intellectual preparation for every kind of student.

“Your children will be in the middle of their professional careers in the year 2050. What is the additional emphasis that a world-class, 21st-century education brings?” Wooden said. “Creativity, collaboration, integrated curriculum, communication, technology, math, science, problem solving and invention” will continue to be priorities for Marymount, he said, because they are the skills that will build the next generation’s leaders.

— Molly Seguel is director of admissions for Marymount of Santa Barbara.

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