Math Academy Prepares Middle-Schoolers for College

July 3, 2007 -- Students who complete Algebra I by the end of eighth grade increase their chances of attending a four-year university and graduating by almost 100 percent, research shows.

With that powerful statistic in mind, the University of Virginia teamed up with Charlottesville city schools to offer a two-week pre-algebra program, Buford Middle School’s summer math academy, to 26 rising eighth-graders.

The program held its closing ceremony to honor the students last Friday, June 29, at Observatory Hill Dining Hall. The results — it “was such a success that it just seems like the perfect way to get more students into higher math,” said Terri Perkins, former division coordinator of mathematics who is currently principal of Walker Upper Elementary. “We definitely were thinking of that idea of algebra being kind of the gate-keeper to college admissions. Students need to get in Algebra I the sooner the better, and we just wanted to open that opportunity to more students.”

The partnership between the University and Charlottesville city schools was sponsored by a federal grant from the GEAR UP program, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. The program is offered by the U.S. Education Department and aims to interest low-income children in college earlier so they can be better prepared. This is the first time GEAR UP has funded a program in Charlottesville.

“That Algebra I course is kind of that power course that in eighth or ninth grade you really want those kids to master, which is why we spent so much effort to get these kids ready to go on, not only to high school, but eventually go on to college,” said John Rusina GEAR UP instructional coordinator for Charlottesville city schools.

The math academy was taught by U.Va. professors Jim Cahoon and Dave Evans, Charlottesville High School algebra teacher Kim Thompson and Buford Middle School algebra teachers Lauralee Watlock and Jodi Wolff-Coussoulos.

“I’ve had ninth-graders who did not master the concepts that they mastered in two weeks,” Thompson said of her recent summer students. “We probably did almost a semester’s amount of work, abbreviated of course, in two weeks.”

The students spent 10 days attending classes in Thornton Hall, home to the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science, taking tours of the Grounds and experiencing the University in a way that was new to most of them. Participants Leah Brown and Elijah Haden spoke on their experiences with the program.

“It was a lot of work and it was hard at times, but they taught it to us in ways that made it easier for us to learn, and they did it without giving us any homework,” Brown said. “The GEAR UP program and the University of Virginia have made this a lot of fun. It was hard to give up two weeks of our summer, but it was worth it.”

While there are plans for this summer math academy to continue, Dr. Marcus Martin, associate vice president for Diversity and Equity, said there are some who hope to form a GEAR UP pre-med program in the future, perhaps even interesting other schools within the University to pair up with the program.

“We are very grateful not just for the GEAR UP grant, but also for the partnership with U.Va.,” said Kristen Spicer, Buford Middle School assistant principal. This program “is going to make a huge difference.”