Innovative Teaching Builds Math Mastery at Sacred Heart Schools

Math mastery evolves in new ways through innovative teaching — and extracurricular geometry for eighth grade students. Learn how this works.

Typically, middle school math is a one-size-fits-all experience. To prepare for high school math, students study prealgebra, then algebra — rarely moving beyond. This standard approach is especially common in traditional environments like parish schools. But at Sacred Heart Schools Chicago (SHS), innovative teaching makes math a tailored experience for students.

“We’ve always had this idea of why not accelerate our highest achieving students so that by eighth grade they can take geometry?” says David Gusaas, Instructor and Math Department Chair at SHS, an independent PreK-8 Catholic school for children of all faiths. “But we know that middle school students are not always conceptually ready for geometry. We didn’t change our curriculum, but decided to offer an extracurricular geometry course.”

By seventh grade, SHS students are split into honors- and regular-level math sections to prepare for eighth grade algebra. “We have a lot of high-achieving students and large honors sections, which is nice because students who are not in honors-level classes get a lot of personal attention on a daily basis,” Gusaas says.

One month into eighth grade, select honors students are invited to participate in the extra geometry class — three times a week at 7:30 a.m. Students are free to opt out, and this year’s class has 18 students.

“This class offers students a way to get a more well-rounded view of how math works and, like the rest of the world, we are integrating concepts of algebra and geometry as we go along,” Gusaas says.

Innovative teaching benefits students

The benefits of extracurricular geometry are twofold. While 80% of all SHS algebra students test out of their first year high school algebra, those exposed to geometry typically advance to honors geometry, or beyond, as freshmen. “The proofs, logic and reasoning students learn in geometry are not covered in algebra, so they really know what to expect,” he says.

Additionally, students are able to apply concepts learned concurrently to a whole new — often challenging — physical representation of math. “They get to see a whole system of math evolve from the ground up. From a conceptual level, that’s important,” Gusaas says.

“Some are very good at algebra and it comes naturally, and then there’s geometry, where students have to name angles and use correct notations and words,” he explains. “Many start out not liking geometry as much, and then they build skills and some get into that required logical thought. Kids who are into debate pretty quickly see that it’s the same skill set. Little lightbulbs go on and it’s inspiring to see.”

Perhaps the most unexpected surprise: Students are “at the top of their game” at 7:30 in the morning, Gusaas says. “They come in full of enthusiasm. Some show up at 7:15, dashing in as soon as the building opens,” he says, with a laugh.

And, because extra geometry is optional, students gain ownership over what they are learning, a rare thing in middle school. “We start from the student end and they talk it over with their parents and they make an informed decision, which adds to their sense of commitment and buy-in,” he says. Extra geometry has no homework, which frees students to enjoy learning for the sake of understanding.

Distinct from the offerings at a typical PK-8 school, this innovative teaching approach is something that sets SHS apart. “It’s a second high school math class offered in a user-friendly way. This adds a little extra to the curriculum.”

Learn more about Sacred Heart Schools Chicago at shschicago.org.

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