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Raising expectations for West Phoenix students helps them defy the odds

by Jason Catanese

By Jason Catanese, 8th grade math teacher, Pueblo Del Sol Elementary School

In today’s schools, we want our students to think critically – but yet we teach them to memorize. We want our students to have intellectual curiosity – but we fill their schedule with easy courses. We want innovation – but then we teach to a test. We want self-reliance – but we force students to sit still and listen.

The United States is falling behind in the world – we are ranked 31st in math among developed countries and every year we are losing more ground. But we have seen, through love, determination and opportunity, we can fix this. We can change the poverty rate and the inequity of incarceration. We can change the broken connection between schools and communities. We can inspire a generation of kids to someday come back to their own communities and become teachers, community activists, change-makers and leaders.

I am an 8th grade math teacher at Pueblo Del Sol Elementary School located in Maryvale community within the Isaac School District and serve as the chairman and executive director of Camp Catanese Foundation, a STEAM and college access summer camp for underserved youth. I was also a Teach For America corps member.

When our school first wanted to teach Algebra to middle school students, we didn’t have the results from our district’s perspective to teach a class during the school day. In the entire history of our school, only eight students had successfully passed Algebra. Our students were not learning because we as educators had not shown students what was possible.

However, we knew that our students were capable, so we talked with parents, made home visits, passed out flyers and recruited students to attend an after-school Algebra class on their own time. This is all we could control – offering a class outside of school for two hours after the school day had ended.

The first day of Algebra, we had bought enough snacks for 20 students, expecting fewer than 10 to come. 86 students showed up. Eighty-six. The momentum that started that night was just beginning to build as our school has had almost 600 students take Algebra and over 300 students take Geometry as 6th, 7th and 8th graders over the last six years.

What we found is that when we give students access to material, they will rise to any levels of expectations we have for them. Our students are changing the way math is viewed in our district, state and country because we are giving them the opportunity to take classes that will eventually lead them to Calculus. Students that take Calculus by the time that they graduate from high school have an 83 percent chance of graduating from college, a higher indicator than where a student was born, his/her socioeconomic income or his/her race. We are changing what our students and community knows to be possible.

Our classroom seeks to combat life’s problems using our mathematics skills and do it in a way that will allow us to help others. My students consistently look for problems in their neighborhood to solve using math. They have an opportunity to achieve a targeted impact that reshapes the future of STEM. At the current moment, careers and opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are accessible to a disconcertingly narrow subset of our population.

In these fields, more than most, minorities and women are underrepresented to a staggering degree, and we strive for our students to be a force in deconstructing that opportunity gap. Consequently, we see a future in which students from Maryvale grow up aspiring to be inventors, engineers, mathematicians, physicists and so on, knowing firmly that their gender, race and socioeconomic background don’t preclude them from those dreams and that they’ll have access to that which is their right: an excellent education.

My students, although they consistently have some of the highest results in our district and in Phoenix, are not satisfied with test scores. What actually matters is using their math to design and execute their own projects and lessons that bring change. They designed traffic lanes in our hallways by measuring and finding the midpoint, created a wheel-chair ramp for a classmate using Pythagorean’s Theorem and Trigonometry, developed a living-wage campaign that helps pay all employees fairly, and tutored their peers across grade levels to ensure every student in our school will go to college. Our students are changing “can’t” into “can’t stop us now.”

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