Lake View a leader in AP calculus

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This year, Lake View High School, a city pioneer in innovative math instruction, has one of the most extensive Advanced Placement calculus programs in the country. Sixty-one seniors, about a third of the senior class, are taking the college-level course.

Nationwide, about 5 percent of seniors typically take AP calculus, according to Bob McDonough, Midwest director of academic services for the College Board, which administers the program. AP courses are more advanced than freshman courses at many colleges, he says, adding that they’re comparable to what Northwestern and Harvard universities offer.

At Chicago’s Whitney Young Magnet High School, 14 percent of seniors are taking AP calculus this year; at Lane Tech, 5 percent are taking it. At west suburban Oak Park & River Forest High School, the percentage is 18.

The performance of Lake View students on the end-of-course AP tests is improving, but it’s still subpar. Last year, only 18 percent scored high enough to garner college credit; nationwide, the percentage was 60.

Lake View students do not have as strong a background in math as other AP students do, explains Richard Kaplan, chair of the school’s 10-member mathematics department. “In the suburbs, students in AP calculus are at the 90th percentile on standardized math tests,” he says. “At Lake View, students enter at the 30th percentile, but graduate with much higher scores. These aren’t kids who performed brilliantly in math all their lives.”

Kaplan says the goal of his department is to convince students they can handle college-level work and to get them interested in college. “The key is to have non-magnet, inner-city kids take enough math to prepare them for college,” says Kaplan. Most of the 36 Lake View students who took AP calculus last year went on to four-year colleges and universities.

Lake View’s math faculty attributes its success to a hands-on curriculum that seeks first to grab students’ interest and then to provide a variety of opportunities for students to demonstrate math knowledge, besides ending up with a correct answer. In addition, teachers take a demonstrable interest in students’ personal lives.

The school started building its math curriculum in 1990, when it joined several other Chicago public schools and the University of Illinois at Chicago in the College Preparatory Mathematics Program. The program trained teachers to use cooperative learning techniques and sought to increase the time students study math, to replace remedial math with more challenging problems, and to form teams of teachers to create plans to change math education at their schools.

Through this program, Lake View teacher Margaret Small learned of the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), a curriculum that weaves together the traditional courses of algebra, geometry, advanced algebra and trigonometry and that is aimed at mixed-ability classes. (See accompanying story.) One of her concerns was that students were being placed into math classes incorrectly because of their scores on placement tests. “Placement tests are like a snapshot of a person’s mathematical ability,” explains Small, now co-director of IMP in Chicago.

Donna Macey, then principal of Lake View, was impressed with IMP and wanted it to reach as many students as possible. To accomplish that, math teachers met with enrolling students and their parents to explain IMP and give them the option of following the IMP path or the traditional path. IMP proved popular, with sections filling up quickly.

Further, math teachers set calculus as a goal for all students, beginning with 8th-graders at neighboring elementary schools. Meeting with the incoming freshmen and their parents, they encourage the students to enroll in summer math classes the school offers.

Teachers continue talking up calculus during freshman and sophomore years. In the junior year, they take students to see the movie “Stand and Deliver,” which is based on the success that a California math teacher had with low-income students. The school also invites bilingual college recruiters to the school—65 percent of Lake View’s enrollment is Hispanic. Seniors who take calculus join the marketing effort, talking to freshmen and sophomores about their experiences and designing their own T-shirt. Students who enroll in calculus are required to attend a summer preparatory course that meets four hours a day for six weeks.

Teachers’ attention extends beyond math. In Kaplan’s classes, for example, students write about their classes and their lives outside school. “We treat our students with respect, and we find that they overwhelmingly come through,” he says.

‘Fun but hard’

“Fun but hard” are the words students frequently use to describe the course, which meets 100 minutes a day, five days a week, and includes an hour of homework each night.

“It’s important to have the mind set that you can do calculus before coming to class,” says senior Moises Jerez.

This year, Lake View began phasing out IMP in favor of a new textbook series that integrates social studies, art and literature in the teaching of algebra, geometry and data analysis. The series is to be used in freshman and sophomore classes; juniors will take advanced algebra and trigonometry. Asked why the school is making the switch, Principal Scott Feaman says the new textbook series is better than IMP for helping students meet new state and Chicago academic standards. Not all teachers agree.

Asked whether any math department could accomplish what Lake View’s has, Kaplan says: “Any school can develop an engaging, exciting math program, but the principal and bureaucracy have to empower the teacher.”