Palm Beach public schools turn to competency-based learning to boost math

Livi Stanford

Pictured above is an Accelerated Mathematics Class at Del Prado Elementary School in Boca Raton. Photo credit: Jason Nuttle of the School District of Palm Beach County.

Florida students often have a chance to get ahead in math. They can take algebra I or geometry in middle school, and earn multiple college credits by the time they finish high school.

But those opportunities are usually reserved for older kids. In elementary school, acceleration opportunities remain rare.

One of the largest school districts in the country wants to change that. It created a math program that allows students as early as third grade to get a jump start in math. Advanced students who participate can finish three years’ worth of coursework in two years’ time. That can put them on a path to take highly advanced courses — like higher levels of calculus — before high school graduation.

The Palm Beach School district expanded the program this school year. District officials say students who took part in the Accelerated Mathematics Program in previous years achieved higher learning gains than their peers who were not enrolled in the program.

The district invites students to participate in the program if they perform above their grade level. It allows them to take two years of math in one year, or three years of math in two years, based on when they begin the program. The program is competency-based. Students progress from one year to the next based on their mastery of different concepts.

Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said when a fourth grader takes two years of math in one year, it opens the door for the student to take algebra I as a sixth grader. Advanced students don’t typically have a chance to enroll in that course until seventh or eighth grade.

The program is part of a broader push in Palm Beach to personalize learning for students and enable them to learn at their own pace. The district is one of three in Florida with special statutory authority to test the concept of competency-based learning.

Palm Beach is the 11th largest school district in country serving 193,000 students. The ‘B’ district’s graduation rate is 88.3 percent.

A 2016 law created a pilot program for Pinellas, Palm Beach, Seminole County school districts, as well as P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, to experiment with competency-based learning, which dovetails with personalized learning. It allows them to apply to the Florida Department of Education for waivers from state regulations that might stand in their way.  A fourth district, Lake County, has backed away from the initiative.

Christiansen, who previously worked for Lake County school system, said the elementary math program, known as AMP, which has enrolled 3,000 students, has doubled in the past year.

“We are always so focused on students that are struggling that we lose sight of the fact that our students can be accelerating,” he said. “We need to make sure we meet the needs of the top 10 percent as well as the bottom 10 percent. We don’t want our students to be bored. We want to make sure they are learning and growing.”

He said in the next five years he hopes to have AMP implemented at all 109 of the district’s elementary schools.

“When we think of meeting students’ needs, some students move faster in certain areas than others,” Christiansen said. “We have an opportunity now to really accelerate learning for some students.”

The 2016 law allows districts such as Palm Beach to apply for waivers from state laws that might stand in their way. Christiansen said the district did not need a waiver for the AMP, particularly because the program is only in its second year.

Further, Robert Avossa, the superintendent of Palm Beach County schools, had previously launched a personalized learning initiative in Fulton County, Ga. He spoke of the math program’s long-term benefits in a video produced by the school district.

“This will give us an opportunity to accelerate them so they can be more successful and get some of those positions going out of high school, for example in the STEM field or going to college and learning about engineering, mathematics, etc.,” he said.

In the same video, Catherine Lewis, the principal at Discovery Key Elementary School, said the program helps push advanced students to new levels.

“You see students meet potentials that you did not even realize that they had,” she said. “This is the push that some of these students have needed to show how far they can go.”

Christiansen said the school district plans to roll out more personalized learning initiatives later this year.






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