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Orange schools hope to score with new math program

ORANGE — The elementary schools will soon be implementing a new math curriculum.

Superintendent Michael Baldassarre said that due to serious financial constraints, the three elementary schools “have gone for a multitude of years without a coordinated curriculum in math.”

In the absence of a consistent pre-K to Grade 6 math curriculum, Baldassarre said that teachers made do by pulling lesson plans off the Web and out of a variety of older print resources. “They did what they could,” he said.

But as a result, the district had a hodgepodge of curricular materials teachers cobbled together for their own classrooms. That meant that there was little consistency in lessons between teachers in the same grade level. And the skills children learned did not build sequentially from one grade to the next.

Previous administrators were often faced with the challenging decision of whether to cut teaching staff or buy a curriculum, he said. When Baldassarre took over the district last year, he was forced to cut music, art and physical education programs to balance a budget nearly $500,000 in the red.

With higher levels of funding from the town this year, Baldassarre was able to bring back art and physical education. While the district continues without a full-time music teacher, Baldassare said that the district must give priority to math and reading, as they are the foundation of a child’s academic career.

According to Baldassarre, the low performance of Orange elementary students reflects the lack of a consistent curriculum. “It’s really slowed them down,” he said.

In recent years, Orange elementary ranked consistently among the 10 lowest-scoring districts on MCAS math and English tests.

“MCAS is an assessment of learning,” he said. “Teachers need appropriate tools to prepare students for those assessments.”

Butterfield Principal James Trill agreed. “We have fabulous teachers in Orange who are committed and highly skilled, but they need the right tools to do their job.” He said that when asked what new resources the district needed, teachers overwhelmingly said they needed a new math curriculum.

Last year, Trill led a committee that researched available curricula and settled on a program called Envision, which incorporates book-learning with Web-based lessons and exercies. It was a one-time cost of $50,000, including the online access. Trill added that states that have adopted Envision are leading the country on student achievement in math.

Trill said there are several reasons why Envision is so successful in teaching math concepts. The curriculum uses both textbooks and online materials to engage young learners with visually stimulating explanations of key concepts. Trill says that young learners are particularly fascinated by online learning games in which students learn key concepts by interacting with animated characters.

The online games “bring the curriculum to life for young kids,” Baldassarre agreed.

Trill also said Envision problem sets require students to show how they came up with the answer, allowing teachers to better understand what concepts each child has or has not yet learned.

The online curriculum talks to students, providing feedback about what they did right and what they still need to work on. Each student then gets additional lessons focused on concepts they have not yet grasped. Students who catch on quickly are given new material, so they don’t get bored.

The district has purchased iPads and laptops for each class, so that students can access Envision as well as Web-based lessons in other subjects.

Trill said that students can also access Envision lessons and interactive games from their home computers. Parents can then see what their child is learning, and be part of the learning process. He said the curriculum also provides Web links with interactive math-based activities so that parents can engage with their children around learning.

Baldassarre added that while that feature is helpful for many families, not all parents have consistent access to the Web.

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