Math failure rate at SRHS prompts search for solutions

SRHS MATH FAILURE: Pictured, math teacher Howard Frazee’s semester grades are posted in his window. An alarming rate of students are failing math school wide. By the end of the semester, 54% of his Math 1 and 41% of his Math 3 students got Fs, according to Frazee’s grades posted in Frazee’s classroom window. Photo By Grace Payne

Article and photo by Grace Payne

Santa Rosa High School has reversed course on a math intervention plan in which students failing their math classes would be bumped down to a lower level in an effort to relearn basics and stop an avalanche of Ds and Fs.

Starting January 3, hundreds of students at all levels were expected to go back a grade in math. But the big changes announced before the holiday break never happened because the Santa Rosa City Schools district office said no, said Andy Lieberman, SRHS vice principal. Lieberman said district administrators were not ready to implement the plan at every high school in the district.“We were pretty ready to push it out,” Lieberman said. “We’ve had classes ready to go. But we had push back because we’re not ready to do that districtwide.”

That leaves school administrators and the math department with a continuing problem about how it will deal with increasing failure rates that threaten graduation and college hopes for far too many students. “It affected me emotionally,” said junior Megan Boren. “The thing about the math department is they have a certain way of teaching, and it doesn’t work for everyone.”

The high school math crisis at Santa Rosa City Schools has been building for several years with the first published reports in The Press Democrat in 2019. Incoming freshmen were getting Ds and Fs at alarming rates, prompting discussions at the school level. Promises were made to provide support such as tutoring, but for the most part, they were unfulfilled. Then the pandemic struck, complicating an already difficult situation.

Under remote learning, many more people failed and others dropped out completely. In-person classes resumed three semesters later with signs that the problems in math had worsened. Math teacher Howard Frazee told parents at Back-to-School Night last fall that diagnostic testing of incoming Math 3 students showed a startling portion of juniors were unprepared for his course. By the end of the semester, 54% of his Math 1 and 41% of his Math 3 students got Fs, according to Frazee’s grades posted in Frazee’s classroom window.

Lieberman estimated 200 Math 1 students failed the first semester.Counselor Seth Geffner acknowledged the high math failure rate at the school.“A lot of ninth-graders are not prepared but they have no choice but to take Math 1,” Geffner said.

Apparently, the school’s solution was to force students to retake the earlier class. For a student who failed Math 3, they would be required to go back to Math 2 starting the spring semester. Now, that’s not happening although students could request to repeat classes, Lieberman said.

 Parents have complained about the lack of a plan noting students have suffered other setbacks including time away from class during the 2017 wildfires, which they missed school for about a month. The pandemic forced them to struggle through distance learning for a year and a half. Many criticized the instruction, saying it was sub-par. Still, math teachers have held students to the same pre-crisis standards — which are higher than other Santa Rosa City Schools, including at Maria Carrillo. Most Santa Rosa High math classes grade with 80% of the total grade based on tests and 20% on homework. The math department stands firm on their self-created grading system and refuses to change it. Geffner mentioned that the school stopped offering math support classes two to three years ago, against the counselors’ preference.

At the same time, the school board has said it wants all students to be able to attend college. However, a single D on a transcript will make students ineligible for entry into a four-year California university directly from high school.Asked what the school plans to do about this problem, Liberman said he’s unsure.“We have a couple things in the works but nothing is solid yet,” Lieberman said. “Honestly, students just need to study more.”

However, students were unconvinced. Many said they work hard but still receive bad grades. Some are heartbroken over the realization that they can’t go straight to college as they had dreamed for their whole life.“I feel like it set me back a lot, and I hate the impending thought of having to make up these credits,” said Josie Holmgren, a junior. “I think that if I were to be able to pass math I would have a better relationship with my parents.” SRHS students have made it clear that change needs to happen in the math department in order for them to be successful.

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