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District Profile

Excelling against the Cultural Tide

Bellevue (Wash.) School District


Michael Sipser, the head of MIT ’s math department, said recently in a New York Times article, “There is something about the culture in American society today which doesn’t really seem to encourage men or women in mathematics” (“Math Skills Suffer in U.S., Study Finds,” October 10, 2008). For Sipser and other educators who bemoan the lack of appreciation for math proficiency in the United States, perhaps a visit to Interlake High School would lift their spirits.

Interlake is one of four high schools in the Bellevue (Wash.) School District (which also has an alternative high school and a school for grades 6-12). As part of a districtwide effort across all grade levels, it has put in place a math program that has demonstrated remarkable success in just a few years. Whereas in 2003-2004, 49 percent of Interlake’s students scored at or above the proficient level in math on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, 73 percent did so in 2006-2007.

Online Curriculum

Interlake caught the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was featured, along with two other high schools, in a recent report for the Gates Foundation published by WestEd, Rethinking High School: Supporting All Students to Be College-Ready in Math. The report, part of a series that examines successful high schools and analyzes their reforms, highlights Interlake’s commitment to offering high-level math courses as well as its supports for struggling students.

In addition to pointing to Interlake as a model of success in math, the Gates Foundation has given the Bellevue district a $2 million grant to put its entire K12 curriculum in five core areas online. This “Curriculum Web,” as it’s called, provides ready access for teachers, students, and parents to a wealth of information and allows teachers to add pages—for example, a lesson plan, a worksheet, or even a video—that then can be used by every other teacher in the district who is teaching the same course.

Planning for Student Success

Because Interlake follows a districtwide curriculum that spans all grades, incoming freshmen have already received indepth instruction in algebra, says Linda Thornberry, the district’s high school mathematics curriculum developer. At this point, most of them move on to “course 2,” as the next level in the district’s nontraditional math sequence is commonly known. Those students who are still struggling with algebra, however, take “course 1.”

After students complete “course 3,” in their sophomore or junior year, they take either honors precalculus or IB math studies. (Interlake is the only high school in the district to offer the International Baccalaureate.) Those with one more year of high school take either AP calculus, AP statistics, or an introductory calculus course. “We have a huge number of kids taking AP calculus,” says Thornberry. She estimates the districtwide figure to be around one-third of all high school students.

Interlake’s math program is inquiry based. According to Jami Mickelson, the school’s math coordinator, this means that students don’t simply memorize formulas taught to them by a teacher, or sit at desks quietly solving mathematical problems. Instead, while working in groups, “they are guided to come up with ideas on their own,” she says. They deal with real-life situations and are expected to create the equations that will help them solve real-life problems. Moreover, they are encouraged to find multiple ways of solving these problems.

No Math Student Left Behind

Interlake’s commitment to seeing that every student is challenged and succeeds in math means that the school also supports the needs both of its highest-achieving students and those students who have not yet reached profi ciency. For the students whose performance is exceptional, Interlake offers two additional high-level courses. For students who struggle with math, the school reaches out in several ways, including offering a class at the end of the school day called “Math Support.” In this class, says Sharon Collins, Interlake’s principal, “students are pretaught math concepts and vocabulary that they will soon encounter in their regular math class.” Recently, Interlake has decided to offer this as a combined class with science. “We’ve found that some students struggle in both subjects,” explains Mickelson.

Collins attributes the success of Interlake’s math program to three things: (1) a well-defined, articulated K12 curriculum, (2) opportunities for professional development and teacher collaboration, and (3) a high level of support for struggling students. Still, she admits, “We are learning every year. We haven’t figured it out yet.” In the end, perhaps this unwillingness to be satisfied with a certain degree of success is the real reason why Interlake’s math program has yielded such impressive results.

Don Parker-Burgard is copy editor.