An innovative approach to help struggling students succeed

Learning loss impacted students and schools across the country, including Brooke Stewarts’. Stewart teaches mathematics within the alternative education program at Oak Creek High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

“Before COVID, nobody knew who the alternative education teachers were,” says Stewart. “And now, post-COVID, everybody knows us.” With the impacts of COVID on the K12 education system, many more high school students fell behind and educators have found themselves trying to get students caught up, filling learning gaps, and encouraging credit recovery to help students complete and advance beyond high school. Stewart notes that “because of this, alternative education has exploded.” 

Her school has long served students who are in need of credit recovery to continue on their education path. Yet, while credit recovery and course support helps some students return to, and complete traditional high schooling, it isn’t a solution for all students.

In 2020, she and a team of colleagues created an innovative competency-based diploma program designed specifically to meet the needs of students who have historically struggled in school. The program serves students in their junior year, who are not four-year college bound and are significantly lacking in credits to complete traditional high school. Stewart and her colleagues wanted to build something that would support this group of students to graduate with competitive skills and be ready to enter the workforce. “The goal is get them to be on a path of success rather than stuck in this cycle of failing classes, credit recovery, failing more classes, credit recovery.” 

Identifying the right math solution

The one-year program beginning in the second semester of a junior year, is focused on resumè building skills and preparing students for employment immediately after graduation. There is a work requirement; students participate in a shortened school day to accommodate their work schedule, and they have the opportunity to graduate one semester early based on successful completion of the program. With these incentives, Stewart and her colleagues, hope it will motivate students to persist and complete the program.

Critical to the programs’ success, though, was finding the right math course to support students on this path. For Stewart, it was necessary that the curriculum not only develop her students’ basic math skills, but that it connect the math to real world experiences that her students were going to need to know about. “I wanted this to be something where if they’re going into the trades, or if they’re going into any sort of technical degree, that they could use these skills, or even just [better understand and manage their] personal finances – how to make a budget, how to have a credit card.”

Stewart’s search led her to Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), a close partner of Oak Creek and located just down the street. There she learned about their use of Quantway Core for technical college students not requiring algebra for their field of study. The course appealed to her because of its highly relevant curriculum that focused on practical application of the math concepts and its collaborative learning approach. This seemed like the right option for her students.

Transforming mindsets on math and the future

Since Oak Creek’s competency program launched in 2021, Stewart has noticed a lot of positive changes in her Quantway students. In particular, she has seen dramatic shifts in students’ mindsets about math and their own math abilities. “I’ve noticed a lot of confidence boosts in my students. One student of mine told me she hated everything about math. And now, after going through this class, she saw the value in what we were doing. She was understanding the concepts and getting the big picture of why we need math. And she ended up doing awesome in the course.” 

These boosts are gratifying to Stewart, but even more meaningful is how this confidence has helped her students engage and persist in the course. Stewart sees how as her students build their math skills and collaboratively navigate the problem exercises in the curriculum they begin to connect how this matters for their lives and feel that what they are learning is worth their time and their effort. 

This program is having a profound impact on her students, and the transformation is motivating for Stewart. She enjoys being able to have conversations with her Quantway students about real world topics connected to the math they are learning. Their engagement and interest is also leading to changes in their attitude toward school as a whole and how they think about and plan for their future. While at the start of the program students may not have set goals for themselves, Stewart says this completely changes through the program, and when, two months before graduation, she asks students about their plans, she will now hear things like, “”Oh, I’m going to MATC. I’m going to study welding. And I’m starting on January 19th, and I’m going to do an apprenticeship in welding, and I’m going to get a job.”

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