How to Solve Our Problem With Math

Three top schools in Los Angeles use different strategies to help students score in math and science.

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Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, says her company depends on schools like CAMS to train the next generation of high-skilled workers. Like other corporations, Intel has been vocal about the need to improve math and science education in the United States. The large computer-chip manufacturer is behind the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation's oldest and most prestigious high school science competition. Standing in the way of progress, however, are U.S. attitudes toward math and science. Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, a selective engineering college in Claremont, Calif., says few female students seriously consider engineering because they think it's a career for "dorky white males, and no cool girl in her right mind would want to be one of those." "One of the biggest problems throughout our culture is we think it's OK to be bad at math," she says. "It's an image we need to change."

At the Hawthorne Math and Science Academy, a charter high school in the Los Angeles area and also a gold medal school on the America's Best High Schools list, principal Joaquin Hernandez understands the frustration. "Half the battle is getting these kids to believe that they're smart and that they can go to college," he says. The school, which requires students to complete math and science courses all four years, is achieving promising results despite its mostly low-income, immigrant student body. Most students arrive as freshmen with poor algebra skills. But 62 percent of students in teacher Pilar Bayani's AP calculus class passed last year's exams. Bayani and two other math teachers, all of whom have taught math abroad, have their own opinions about why American students trail their peers in other countries. They range from students not understanding the importance of math to a lack of motivation. "They give up too fast," says algebra and geometry teacher Maria Gonzales Tavora. "So we have to give students here more one-on-one attention."

Most Hawthorne teachers, for example, hold after-school tutorials, staying well into the evening to help advanced as well as struggling students. The teachers also have little patience for excuses. Any student who misses a class or fails to turn in an assignment serves lunch detention, where he or she studies for college entrance exams. On a recent visit to the school's "detention hall," about 70 students—nearly one sixth of the school—were seated with dictionaries spread open on their laps looking up SAT vocabulary words.

Students also must answer to Hernandez, who's well liked but known for being tough. "You can't be afraid at this school," the principal says, referring to the demanding academic program and strict rules for students. Senior Teresita Casarrubias, who studies past midnight most nights for her five AP classes, knows no fear. "We know we're here to work," she says. Students like Casarrubias also know that colleges that once seemed out of reach are now within grasp. Two graduates last year gained admission to Harvard and Brown.

Lennox Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy, a charter high school (No. 21 on the gold medal list) serving mostly disadvantaged students in a neighborhood near the Los Angeles airport, is achieving similar results. The 510-student school also requires math and science all four years and boasts a high collegebound rate. For Armando Mena, the school's founding principal, the work of preparing all students for college is personal. Mena is a product of the area's secondary public and private schools, which he says failed to adequately prepare him for his college major in biology. He ultimately gave up pursuing a career in medicine for teaching.

At Lennox, Mena relies on teachers like Aaron Fong, who has a background in science and teaches music, and Jose Rivas, a former engineer at Boeing, to bring students up to speed and spark in them an interest in math and science. (By some estimates, 93 percent of American science teachers have little or no training in science, and more than a third of middle and high school math classes have teachers without even a college minor in a math-related field.)


Corrected on : Corrected on 12/5/08: An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect ranking for Lennox Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy. The school is ranked No. 21 in the 2009 version of America's Best High Schools.