At a time when math scores are dropping across many parts of Louisiana, there is a class of eighth graders at Akili Academy who have elected to include advanced math into their learning day. There is not an empty seat in LaShunda Coleman’s Algebra I course. At this open-enrollment school with a math program that already provides a Tier 1, standards-aligned curriculum, it is apparent these scholars are passionate about exceeding expectations and succeeding in high school and beyond.
Akili’s mission is focused on providing academic opportunities to prepare scholars to attend competitive high schools, but the mission also is dedicated to developing the whole student and therefore has a rich and robust selection of enrichment classes. All 8th graders at Akili have a block of time called WIN (What I Need), and the programs they choose to focus on during this block are in addition to their regular academics. Akili started offering Algebra I four years ago, and it is in such demand that students wishing to take the course must go through an application process. The written application asks students to list their top-two high school choices, colleges, and career choices. It further asks for students to thoughtfully write about why taking the course will help prepare them for their top high school choices and how their past life and school experiences will help them succeed in passing Algebra I. Ms. Coleman asks that the applicants, “…be reflective. Answer why you want to take this class and how will it benefit you.” Forty-three of Akili’s 71 8th grade scholars applied for the higher level math experience, and 28 were accepted. The hope is to grow the program in the future.
Fewer than a dozen open-enrollment, K-8 schools in New Orleans offer Algebra I. Eliese Rulifson, 3-8 Grade Math Instructional Coach at Akili summed it up, “Algebra is the ‘gatekeeper’ to so many things: basic and higher level math courses, higher ACT and SAT scores, more successful and selective colleges, and lucrative careers in the STEM field.” Akili strategically administors its math curriculum, using rigorous state standards, starting as early as Kindergarten so students are set up to be successful in Algebra. 8th graders at Akili are given the opportunity to take the End-of-Course (EOC) exam, which is a state test designed for high school students who have completed a year-long Algebra I course. More than half of the Akili 8th graders who have taken this exam have successfully tested out of Algebra I and can pursue more advanced mathematics when they begin high school.
Eagerness to learn and teach is apparent in the Algebra I classroom. Scholars hurry to their seats and willingly engage as Ms. Coleman guides them through complex problems. Of the 28 students in class, 17 are girls – an important statistic at a time when women are underrepresented in math and science careers. It was because of a female 9th grade math instructor that Ms. Coleman pursued a career as a math teacher, “She showed me that I could do this, and I fell in love with math. I want to shine a light on math for my students.” And shine a light, she does! Not only is she teaching the Algebra I course, she is also teaching 8th grade math, allowing her to pace each class but also presenting challenges, “I have to make sure I don’t get ahead of what has yet to be taught in the regular math course!”
“At Akili, we are very proud to offer Algebra I to any 8th grader who has the will and determination to take on this additional challenge. This is just one way that we make sure that our program is offering a true college prep program in an equitable school environment,” said Akili Principal, Allison Lowe.