Special Report
Equity & Diversity

How One District Is Raising Math Rigor and Achievement for Students of Color

In the Long Beach, Calif., school district, educators deploy a multifaceted strategy to raise math rigor and achievement
By Christina A. Samuels — March 03, 2020 10 min read
From left, 8th grade students Alonna Kann and Drake Smith work to solve problems in their Algebra 1 class at Alexander Hamilton Middle School in Long Beach, Calif. The district is pushing hard to make all students take—and succeed— in advanced math courses.
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What does it take to get students from low-income families, English-language learners, black students, and Hispanic students enrolled—and thriving—in advanced-math courses?

For the Long Beach Unified school district in California, it takes a little bit of everything.

In 2014, district leaders decided that students must take four high school courses in math to earn a diploma. That’s twice as many as what California requires, but more in line with what it takes to be a competitive candidate for the University of California and for California State University. The district’s class of 2019 was the first group of students to go through all four years of high school with the more rigorous requirement in place.

But leaders of the 72,000-student school system, about 25 miles south of Los Angeles, say they knew that just increasing the math requirements would not be enough to boost the district’s college-readiness rates. In order for students to meet the higher standards, Long Beach needed to build ongoing support for students well before they started high school.

Long Beach’s student body comes from groups that are not typically well-represented in advanced classes. Nationwide, enrollment in gifted, Advanced Placement, and other rigorous courses is dominated by affluent white and Asian students.

In contrast, more than half of students in Long Beach Unified are Hispanic, while 12 percent are African American, 12 percent are white, and 7 percent are Asian. About two-thirds are “socioeconomically disadvantaged,” and about 12 percent of students are English-learners.

Among the efforts underway in the district:

In elementary school, Long Beach takes an expansive view when identifying students for gifted education, particularly at schools with high percentages of students of color and students from low-income families.

At the middle school level, the district created a unique position—a “math assistant principal"—who divides her time among three of the lowest-performing middle schools based on math scores. She is a math coach, with the administrative muscle to influence issues such as staffing and scheduling.

And across the district’s middle schools, a “math development” class offers additional opportunities for math practice and review for 8th graders enrolled in Algebra 1.

In high school, Long Beach is among the California districts embracing a math class called Introduction to Data Science. Developed by the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Unified school district, the course gives students an alternative to Algebra 2 that is accepted by California universities as an admissions prerequisite.

And for a selected group of high school boys who have potential but not necessarily the grades to show it, the Urban Math Collaborative provides a supportive peer group that teaches study skills and exposes participants to science and math enrichment. The collaborative also offers a foundation of emotional support that goes well beyond math.

“Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely,” said Chris Steinhauser, who has been superintendent of the district for 18 years.

Hamilton Middle School student Gerardo Ayon talks with Stacey Benuzzi, a “math assistant principal” in three Long Beach middle schools who coaches math teachers and shapes scheduling and other administrative decisions that she says are key to raising rigor and achievement in math.

Still, Long Beach has seen a steady rise over the past five years in the percentage of students meeting the standards for college admission, based on their grades, completed coursework, and scores on standardized tests. Notably, that increase is across all demographic groups.

“We’re not different,” Steinhauser said. “They always say, ‘Long Beach is special,’ but we just attack these problems in a multifaceted way. Everyone could do what we’re doing, if they sit down and put this road map together.”

The district’s efforts align with broader trends in math instruction, said Kyndall Brown, the executive director of the California Mathematics Project, a statewide network that offers professional development to K-12 teachers.

Nationally, educators are looking at ways to eradicate math as a gatekeeper for higher-level courses, tie math to real-life interests, and help students have a “positive mathematics identity” so that they don’t internalize the idea that some people just aren’t good at the subject.

He also said there’s a huge move toward social-emotional learning as well. “You’re teaching human beings, not automatons. So how do you connect the math you’re teaching to students’ lives?” Brown said.

Mining for Potential

In Long Beach’s elementary schools, one way to do that is to search for talent early—and create fertile ground for talent to develop.

All students are screened in 2nd grade and 4th grades, to identify children whose talents might appear later, said Pamela Lovett, coordinator of the district’s gifted and talented education program.

The test, however, is one among many measures used to ultimately determine which students are eligible for gifted services. The district conducts an evaluation process specific to schools where 75 percent or more of the students come from low-income families.

In those particular schools, children are evaluated against their classmates, rather than measured against Long Beach’s student population as a whole. Those students get the same enriched curriculum and specially trained teachers as those identified through the districtwide method, Lovett said.

Gifted students are not the only beneficiaries of specially trained teachers. The school system mandates a certification process for teachers of gifted students. But educators not assigned to teach gifted education can also go through the certification process to learn and use new skills for enriching and modifying lessons and working with different types of learners.

Long Beach is extending its search for academic promise to younger children, piloting an enriched preschool-through-grade 2 curriculum at some elementary schools with a high percentage of African American students and students in poverty. The program is intended to stimulate critical and creative thinking.

“That also creates another layer of promoting equity in this process. We want to make sure that kids have formal practice, and that all of our teachers have experience with teaching critical and creative thinking,” Lovett said.

Will this prepare students for more rigorous coursework, including in math? That’s the goal, Lovett said.

“We’re constantly trying to think of all of the ways we can catch kids,” she said.

Reinforcing Middle School Math

Long Beach has followed the nationwide trend to enroll 8th grade students in Algebra 1.

Algebra 1 is a critical first step to advanced-math courses. Nationally, federal data show that white and Asian students disproportionately take Algebra 1 before high school. Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented among those taking Algebra 1 for the first time in high school. In Long Beach, about 60 percent of 8th graders are in Algebra 1, and the demographic makeup mirrors the district, said Steinhauser—part of “setting the bar high,” he said.

But with the accelerated path comes another form of support for students who need extra help. They can take a math “development course” alongside Algebra 1. That gives teachers another chance to review lessons and shore up areas of confusion.

Long Beach student DJ Cruz practices taking apart a device used by astronauts as Bob Barboza, the founder and director of the Barboza Space Center, watches. Cruz is a member of the Urban Math Collaborative, a program that supports math and science enrichment for boys of color in three Long Beach high schools.

The development class offers a break from the Algebra 1 pacing guide, said Daniela Manole, a math teacher at Hamilton Middle School.

“There’s no curriculum per se—it’s an extension of what you teach,” Manole said. “It gives you a little bit more freedom, to focus on [students’] needs.”

The development course might feature games, online work, reviews, or chances to go deeper in a lesson. They have proved successful enough that some middle schools offer them to 6th and 7th graders.

New Approach to Math Coaching

Hamilton Middle School and two other middle schools with high levels of poverty are also the focus of a district-created position called a “math assistant principal.”

Stacey Benuzzi, the educator in this new role, is a former math coach with an administration certification. Much of her job is working with teachers on improving their instruction, a traditional coaching role. But her position as an assistant principal also gives her the latitude to work directly with administrators on issues such as teacher assignments or building time into the master schedule for teacher collaboration.

“One of my biggest takeaways is that it really has to be a full-circle approach,” Benuzzi said. “If we just work with teachers, you’re not going to always be able to make the biggest changes. It’s working with administrators, thinking about things like the master schedule, [and] building our administrators’ capacity to understand the importance of building access and equity.”

And the position gives her more power when she makes suggestions for teachers to adjust their practice.

With a typical coach, “it’s an option for a teacher to take the coaching or not take the coaching,” Benuzzi said. In her position, however, she evaluates all the math teachers at the three schools where she works.

Once students reach high school, they’re often locked into a decades-old math sequence intended to lead to calculus but can serve to winnow out students who might not be interested, or able, to follow that path.

Long Beach, along with other districts in California, created an alternative college-ready path. Students who pass Algebra 1, geometry, and Introduction to Data Science are eligible for California’s public universities under current policy, though they would have to take another math course to earn a high school diploma.

The Long Beach Unified school district is pursuing a range of efforts to increase the number of students ready for college. The percentage of students ready to attend California State University, based on classes taken, GPA, and standardized-test scores, is increasing, though gaps remain among ethnic and racial groups.

The Introduction to Data Science course requires students to collect data and build statistical and mathematical models. While it is a particularly useful option for students who don’t want to take Algebra 2, it is a valuable class in its own right, said Rebecca Afghani, the mathematics-curriculum leader for grades 6-12.

“Many of the college majors are requiring some statistics, even if they aren’t STEM pathways,” Afghani said.

The class also opens up options. This school year, the district tried an experiment: A teacher was assigned to teach two sections of the data-science course and two sections of Introduction to Applied Math, which does not count as a college prerequisite. But the district switched the students enrolled in the applied math class into the data-science course without telling them, Afghani said.

“The teacher has said her four sections are indistinguishable,” Afghani said. The students who originally signed up for the applied math class were performing just as well as those who had selected the “harder” course. And now, all the students who pass will have college as a potential option for them after high school.

“I wonder about the judgments we make about the students we think won’t be successful,” Afghani said.

Changing Mindsets

As much as those initiatives help push students along a rigorous math pathway, they also have an underlying mission: changing the way students see themselves.

That’s where the district’s Urban Math Collaborative comes in. The program, in three Long Beach high schools, offers a tight-knit social group and parent involvement, in addition to math tutoring and culturally relevant activities. The ultimate destination for participants is college graduation, said its founder, Doris Robinson, a former principal. The students tapped for the program definitely aren’t clamoring for after-school math activities, and that’s where the parents come in, she said.

“I tell [parents], ‘You are powerful. You really don’t know how powerful you are,’ because those students would not come in the room if it’s not for two things: parent involvement—and the snacks we give them.”

Terrence Bryant, who leads the program at Cabrillo High School, says program directors look for intangibles in students. “We get students who don’t necessarily look too appealing on paper. Then we interview them and we realize they’re really good for the program.”

After four years in the program, though, students understand they’ve gained much more than just snacks.

Torieaun Hilbert, a program alumnus, is now a senior at the University of LaVerne. He remembers not being able to slack off academically without getting attention.

Robinson, the founder, “has access to every grade and score. If you have a zero, she tracks it and she’s on it immediately,” Hilbert said. By the time he graduated, his 2.2 GPA had risen to 3.5.

“My experience when I was going through high school is that I had love, I had support,” Hilbert said, “I had people who were connected to Doris to look out for my success.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Building a Math Culture Where All Students Thrive


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