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Totem Middle School deemed 'bright spot' in state for Algebra education

Breann Williams offers interventionary instruction to help get Totem Middle School students up to speed for Algebra I by the eighth grade. - Kirk Boxleitner
Breann Williams offers interventionary instruction to help get Totem Middle School students up to speed for Algebra I by the eighth grade.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

MARYSVILLE — Three years after receiving a less auspicious designation from the state, Totem Middle School has been spotlighted by the League of Education Voters for its significant accomplishments in those intervening years.

League of Education Voters CEO Chris Korsmo explained that the LEV's 2013 Citizens' Report Card, which was released on March 26, cited Totem Middle School's push to up the numbers of students in its higher level math classes, which prepare them for high school and beyond.

"This school's success is a bright spot for Washington," Korsmo said. "Their innovation and dedication to helping students reach their potential should be a model for schools across the state."

Korsmo noted that half of Totem's students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and yet almost all of the school's students take Algebra I before they move on to high school, which he pointed out makes them better prepared to take the math courses that colleges and technical schools look for when admitting students.

Marysville School District Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland expressed his pride in Totem's staff for helping so many eighth-graders succeed in Algebra, which is traditionally a ninth-grade class.

"They have added extra periods and extra tutoring," Nyland said of the Totem staff. "They constantly challenge students to step up a notch. They have visited other schools to learn what else they can do. They have developed roadmaps that let students work at their own pace. Totem staff don't give up. They find a way."

Totem Middle School Principal Robert Kalahan recalled how, three years ago, Totem received a federal school improvement grant as a "priority school."

"It was a disheartening designation, because for each of the three years in a row prior to that, we'd seen gains of 11 percent in our reading scores," Kalahan said. "We were making solid, steady gains in reading, but we realized we hadn't made any gains in math during that same time. So, we called a state of emergency and got everybody on deck to teach math."

Totem began by doubling its Algebra classes from 30 to 60 students, and then expanded further by scheduling double-periods of Algebra and working to help an additional 25 students get ready to take the state test. By the time Totem had enrolled nearly 100 eighth-graders in Algebra classes, 89 percent of them passed the end-of-course exam.

"We passed more Algebra students than all the other middle schools in town combined," Kalahan said. "From there, we asked ourselves what more we could do, which led to us focusing on the sixth- and seventh-graders, to try and give them a math curriculum that would get them ready for Algebra by the eighth grade."

Additional Algebra classes, further double-periods of Algebra and Totem teachers working on an elective basis to pre-teach Algebra skills soon added up to 180 Algebra students, 80 percent of whom passed the regular Holt curriculum.

"They weren't as successful as the students the year before, but there were so many more students taking Algebra," said Kalahan, who confirmed that nearly every eighth-grader at Totem now takes at least an Algebra class. "There's been concern expressed over whether students are being pushed to take Algebra too early, but my research of our local ninth-graders has found that their learning has continued to accelerate in high school."

Kalahan credited the success of Totem's aggressive promotion of Algebra not only to teachers who believe that students can achieve at high levels, but also to teachers who are afforded extra time during the school day to intervene on behalf of struggling students.

"Thanks to the work being done at the Totem and 10th Street middle schools, as well as more students taking eighth-grade Algebra at the Cedarcrest and Marysville middle schools, we are now ahead of schedule in meeting our district goal for students taking and passing eighth-grade Algebra," Nyland said. "Eighth-grade Algebra is one of our steps to success, as a leading indicator of student success in graduation and college readiness."

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