Fraction focus gives University Place students a strong foundation for STEM

If there’s a single word that can strike fear in the heart of the math-phobic, it’s this: fractions.

Ask struggling math students (or their parents) what year their serious math troubles began, and many will point to fourth or fifth grade, notes Jeff Loupas, director of teaching and learning for the University Place School District.

“That’s where fractions live,” he said.

A 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Education said students’ failure to master fractions is pervasive. Without an understanding of fractions —and their cousins, decimals — students cannot move on to mastering algebra, the report says.

And without that mastery, the study of higher math and science grinds to a halt, and would-be STEM scholars never reach their potential.

“Math is the foundation,” said Jennifer Wong, principal at Narrows View Intermediate School. “If that’s solid, kids can excel in science and technology.”

About six years ago, University Place teachers launched a major initiative designed to help take the fear out of fractions, as well as other mathematical concepts.

“We re-tooled our whole system,” Loupas said. “We started providing materials and training our teachers.”

Research showed that students need exposure to key math concepts for longer periods of time, and teachers across grade levels need to employ the same strategies and use consistent mathematical language.

The district studied the success of the Rational Number Project from the University of Minnesota, a decades-long research project that offered practical methods for teaching fractions and related concepts. Teachers employ paper-folding exercises that show students how a whole unit may be divided once, then multiple times, into smaller and smaller pieces.

Laura Sloan, a 26-year school district veteran, teaches fifth grade at Narrows View. She said teachers realized many students didn’t have the life experiences helpful to comprehending fractions.

“So we had to give it to them,” she said. “Kids who struggle can’t rely on rules and tricks. They need something they can picture.”

Circles, paper strips and other math manipulatives give them that.

“They see it, they do it, they explain it,” Sloan said. “It becomes their world.”

Sloan and her colleague, Cheryl Buell, (who also happens to be her sister) both teach at Narrows View, which includes about 700 students in grades five through seven.

Both were among the first district teachers to take on the challenge of learning the Rational Number Project methods. Those initial trainees now instruct other teachers, with at least 50 University Place teachers spending part of their summer vacation each year in training.

Buell, who began her career as a technology project manager and consultant before entering education, said her teaching has changed drastically.

“I came in teaching the way I was taught — with rules, algorithms and memorization,” she said. “I learned well that way. When I started teaching, some of my kids could get it. But others couldn’t.”

She said the hands-on approach helps her seventh-graders understand why and how the old rules and algorithms work.

Another bonus, Buell said, is the school’s 80-minute math periods. She spends the first 30 minutes on warm-up exercises. She moves around the room, offering instant feedback and coaching as kids hold up miniature dry-erase boards showing their work.

“We have the luxury of practicing on a daily basis what we have learned,” she said.

For students who need more, teachers offer before- and after-school math help, as well as summer school.

The district has seen its efforts pay off on state math tests. For example, University Place low-income students outpaced the statewide average for their peers in every grade in the 2012-13 school year (the most recent in which test scores are available).

Most UP math teachers have now received multiple rounds of training, Loupas said.

“Teachers led this movement,” said Wong, the Narrows View principal. “They were in on the ground floor.”

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