Feature stories

The greats of math

MS 223 in South Bronx wins national Intel award

It takes the participation of the whole school to achieve results this stunning. “It’s exciting. Teachers are teaching teachers,” said 7th- and 8th-grade math teacher Michael Stoll.
Chapter Leader Mary Hallinan (right), with student teacher Pamela Kornblatt, attributes her school’s success to “collaboration between math teachers at different grade levels, the professional development we received and the sharing of best practices. Kids know what to expect each year and what is expected from them.”
Seventh-grader Junior Delrosario graphs a problem on a Smartboard with his teacher Silvestre Arcos looking on. More Smartboards are coming via the Intel grant. “I love math, it’s like life to me,” said Delrosario, whose goal is to study engineering at Cornell University.

Who said math can’t be fun? The subject may get a bum rap in some circles, but not at MS 223, the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the Bronx, which was recently chosen by Intel as a 2010 School of Distinction for math excellence.

“We’ve made our math program challenging, but also fun,” said the school’s founder and principal, Ramon Gonzalez, of the award-winning program. “We’re trying to make kids love math — that has always been our goal.”

And they are clearly succeeding — as evidenced by students’ enthusiasm and  skyrocketing test scores — despite the challenges. More than 95 percent of the 500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at the school,  which is located in an economically depressed area of the South Bronx. Twenty percent of the students are English language learners and 20 percent have special needs. 

According to Chapter Leader Mary Hallinan, an 8th-grade math teacher, when the school opened in 2003 only 10 percent of students met standards on state math exams; even after the recent recalibration of the exams in 2010, that number has jumped to 62 percent.

It is one of six schools nationwide that were honored for math and science excellence in the September Intel competition. 

Gonzalez and Hallinan both say it is the quality of the teaching that really matters — and the teachers’ dedication to their craft and their belief that every student can learn. 

So what is the secret of MS 223’s success? For Frank Cunningham, the school’s math coach, establishing a positive school culture was key.

“It was a tough school. The kids weren’t engaged. There was low achievement,” Cunningham said. “Ramon and his leadership team changed the culture of the school, which was the single greatest factor in our success.”

Sixth-grade math teacher Peter Maiurano has taught at MS 223 for six years. He saw the transformation firsthand.

“The school has changed quite a bit,” Maiurano said, emphasizing the efforts of the administration and faculty to increase parental involvement and create an environment in which students feel safe.

Not surprisingly, the school has also emphasized math instruction, increasing the number of math periods to 10 each week in its first year, and has introduced innovative approaches to teaching math through music and a schoolwide mock economy, “School Bucks,” as well as a healthy dose of professional development for teachers.

Two after-school math clubs, Academic Intervention Services programming, an extended school day that 80 percent of students attend and regular department meetings have also made a big difference, teachers said, as has the spirit of collegiality which pervades the school.

It is this last point that is most important to Hallinan, who insisted that the school’s achievement in math would not have been possible without the support of colleagues from other departments.

“I’m proud to see the teamwork that takes place on a daily and hourly basis at the school. Without teamwork and collaboration, the kids don’t grow as a whole,” she said. “You need all skills to do math. You can’t solve word problems without reading.”

The Intel award brings with it $160,000 worth of grants and new instructional technologies, much of which the principal, plans to put into professional development because, he said, “it is the teacher in front of the child that’s going to make the difference.”

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