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Focused on Making Students Better

Everyday Algebra, an innovative State High math class, found an equation for success, and an acclaimed documentary company noticed.


Small Forces, a Chicago-based nonprofit which profiles social and educational programs making impacts on communities, recently released this short film highlighting an effective effort to help students pass the state’s Keystone Algebra 1 assessment exam and build a foundation for future math courses.


In making “Solve for Why” for the school district at no charge, the company recognized the benefits that math teachers Jessica Kerr, Shai McGowan, Shawna Mukavetz and Lisa Turner and paraprofessionals Alane Farber and Amber Geise provide for students tackling what’s formally called College Prep Algebra I A/B.


Typically, students have the class every other day, but it became clear that some needed something more. Thus was born Everyday Algebra, an intensive response developed by the math department four years ago at the suggestion of Principal Curtis Johnson. Under the program, the class covers the same content as its regular counterpart but meets Monday to Friday for 90 minutes, with two teachers and often two paras instructing, giving students plenty of individual attention.


Additionally, the program takes a different approach to classroom learning and homework than its regular counterpart. Individualized practice sets based on need are the norm, and class time is largely devoted to working on problems.


“We do a ton of practice in class,” Mukavetz said. “We do what’s called a flipped classroom. So the work that’s being done outside of class is usually just watching a video and taking notes. All of the hard work is done in class, where somebody can jump in every time you have a question, which, as you can imagine, is wonderful for the parents. They’re not sitting at the kitchen trying to muddle through stuff. So the kids get a ton of support. We ask them to do everything here in front of us.”


One measure of success has been a rising Keystone pass rate. Without intervention, students who qualify for Everyday Algebra based on scores and teacher recommendations are given less than a 5 percent chance of passing. Adding extra help, the state predicted, would boost the success rate to approximately 10 percent. In its first year, Everyday Algebra shattered the expectation with a 32 percent pass rate, then climbed to the low 40s for the next two years, eventually exceeding the statewide average for all students.


With the program flourishing, Mukavetz reached out to Small Forces to inquire about the possibility of a film after seeing one of its productions win the PBS Online Film Festival. Upon learning about the program, Small Forces Executive Producer Katie Prentiss Onsager was “just struck by the innovation” she was hearing about.


“I could tell as soon as I got on the phone with Shawna that she was an amazing advocate for her students and the work that she does, and that is always the No. 1 indicator for me that, whether it’s a nonprofit or a program, it’s going to be successful,” Prentiss Onsager said. “Most of our videos do feature people who are those kinds of passionate advocates.”


Early last March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, Prentiss Onsager and a videographer spent four days filming the class sections and interviewing students, faculty and parents. The result was a lasting tribute to a program that has garnered grateful testimonials from parents:


  • “This class was a godsend for my math-challenged son.”
  • “My child has had the best grades ever this math year; she had an A- at one point, the highest math grade she has ever received. I think this year really helped her growth in math skills.”
  • “This class was so helpful to my son. It gave him the confidence he needed when it came to completing difficult problems. He was always excited to bring home a good grade.”
  • “My daughter has never been one to really embrace math, often finding it too difficult. But she really grew this year and we greatly appreciate all your efforts.”


Mukavetz proudly noted that State High’s overall Keystone Algebra I pass rate of 80 percent in 2018-2019 reflected Everyday Algebra’s success.


“When you look at our whole school’s pass rates, we’re off the charts,” she said. “And we’re contributing to that.”


By Chris Rosenblum