Math at Berkeley High School

Archived Responses: 

Alternatives to taking math at BHS

Sept 2001

We are all aware of some of the many reasons that kids are not successful in math at BHS. In my daughter's freshman year I think it was a sense of hopelessness that set in in Honors Geometry which led to her giving up. She made it through the first semester and then took Reg. Geometry in the second semester but was very dissatisfied with the teacher and eventually stopped attending class and failed.

Alternative 1: She repeated the second semester of geometry through BHS Independent Studies this summer. She enjoyed (well, that might be too strong a term) the self-paced nature of the class, and actually finished in less time than allotted with an A. Her father was able to 'tutor' her. Independent Studies recommended that all math students have a tutor. The weekly half-hour meeting with the teacher is not enough to help in understanding the concepts. (As a side benefit, she also got PE credit since she was required to take two classes. She spent a fair number of hours at the Y or on her bike.)

This year, as a sophomore, she used her teacher choice to 'avoid' a particular math teacher. Things were going well until after three weeks of school, due to low enrollment in some afternoon sections, the avoided teacher was put in charge of her class. She was not able to schedule math at a different time so she decided to withdraw.

Alternative 2: (though costly, ~$500 for a year's worth of math credit) Laurel Springs is an on-line school aimed mostly at homeschoolers. (see Distance Learning & Online Classes for the rest of this review.)

I think that math (and education in general) is a little like religion. "There are many paths to God." BHS could be a stronger place if the school were open to alternatives such as these.

Algebra over the summer

We went to Head Royce for the Algebra program. We didn't do it in-Lieu of, but it gave my son a huge amount of confidence when taking algebra in 8th Grade. It's only a 6 week program and the cost was pretty reasonable. Also, there is a bus from (64) from Berkeley Bart that takes them about 3 blocks away from the school.

Piedmont High has full-year algebra and geometry over the summer. It's very good. Last summer my son took geometry there because he was a year behind in math at BHS. PHS was hard work - intense, homework every night, he had to get up early in the morning for 6 weeks and catch 2 buses to get there. But he did very well! It was about $300. Last year the number to call was 594-2669

Algebra and Trig Credit from ATDP?

UC Berkeley's Academic Talent Development Program offers to teach a full year of high school algebra/trig in its summer program for gifted students. High school credit is supposed to be possible by petition if the student makes an A or B. We are considering this for Algebra II and Trig at a BHS student who is now in honors geometry. Does anyone have experience with the following:
--will BHS teachers recommend admission to this program?
--will BHS give credit?
--does the student learn enough to be prepared for other advanced math courses?
--how does what is learned compare to either regular or honors algebra?

Our daughter took Honors Geometry at BHS in her freshman year. She then attended the summer ATDP program in Algebra II/Trigonometry. In her sophomore year at BHS she took Math Analysis, then now as a junior she is in Calculus.

Yes BHS will recommend ATDP. Ms. Leventer, our Math Dept Chair, is very familiar with it. Your student will get credit from BHS but not as an Honors class. The ATDP program is very challenging. Our student worked very hard at it and was well prepared for the next advanced math class at BHS. Good luck!

Response to ATDP math question. I only have experience with the summer Algebra I ATDP class although I imagine it's representative. My entering 8th grader took Algebra 1 last summer; the class meets a full year requirement and would have moved her ahead to honors geometry as an 8th grader. For various reasons we decided not to go that route, but she took the Berkeley High test and passed and could have signed up for geometry. She needed a B or higher in ATDP and a certain score on the exam, which she got. Laurie Levanter administered the test in August and my understanding is that with the grade, score and ATDP teacher recommendation ATDP course work in Math is accepted by BHS.

The class was extremely fast moving (since they had to cover 1 year in 6 weeks) and challenging. My daughter could hardly do anything else during the 6 weeks, and in fact we had signed her up for a variety of afternoon activities (volleyball, kayaking,Y-camp) some of which she had to miss because the homework was so demanding. She was frequently up until 11 pm finishing homework (this is during summer vacation!) ATDP said there would be 6-10 hrs of homework per class and there was-at least. It's hard to describe what 6-10 hours of algebra homework every 2 days looks like-it was an unbelievable amount of work. I would think twice before encouraging my daughter to do another math class through ATDP-but if she wanted to, at least she knows what's she's getting into. Other kids were also very motivated, which helped. Your child has to really want to do this and be very disciplined when other friends are going off doing fun things; get behind in a class like this and it's all over! Kathy

A response to the ATDP question: If the student is a BHS student, the parent should discuss credit for ATDP work with the chair of the math department at BHS before signing up for the ATDP course. Linda

How do I appeal BHS Math Dept. Decision?

April 2000

Hello, I'm a new member and I need some advice and strategy. My daughter Rach, is a freshman and we are relatively new to the BUSD system, having moved from another state a couple of summers ago. having moved from another state a couple of summers ago. I am lucky. Rachael really loves to learn. She's a good, honest kid who tries hard, has some gifts in the humanities, and is generally an A- student. Math is not her strong suit, but she wants to "get it."

So here's the situation: She started Geometry this year with a teacher she liked and understood. While she floundered a bit at first, she pulled a strong B and was hoping to pull an A second semester. She actually wrote a letter to Ms. Saunders early in the year praising this teacher, Ms. Bracken, saying she was enjoying math at last!

Because many children failed the first semester of Geometry, the school created a repeat class and Ms. Bracken was enlisted to help these students. (Bravo! that the school responded immediately and didn't let the failures proceed.) But, my daughter was shifted to another teacher mid-term then who, unfortunately, confuses her terribly when he explains concepts and new material.

I called him during the first few weeks and asked for a recommendation for a Geometry text that we could refer to at home. He said that he didn't want the students to refer to other texts. They were to call fellow students and struggle with it together or come to him during their lunch periods (We all know how much time the kids have during that period!) Rach says he's very short-tempered when children request repeat she doesn't. She wishes to stay on his good side, as any student does.

Instead, she started going to the Tutor Floor most Tues and Thurs after class and called an old algebra tutor we used in middle school, for occasional support. Still, Rach wanted to come out of class without her head spinning in confusion.

The last day we were permitted to ask for class changes, I called her counselor and presented the case that here was a pro-active student asking for help BEFORE she failed (and she's now very concerned that will happen!). Couldn't we come together and find a solution for her? While Jennifer, her counselor, was very supportive, she has no power to change anything without the Math Chair's approval. So I called Laura La Venture (spelling uncertain). She left me a message saying classes were filled and Rach would "Have to make do."

He is not a popular teacher and I do think one of the issues is that Laura is tired of hearing students wanting out because he's not popular. That is not the case for Rachael. She has found her balance with him personally. She says he likes her and enjoys her sense of humor in class.

I came back with a letter asking why a good student asking for help must "make do" while failing students get a new teacher and a whole repeat class? Rach is willing to take on a 7th period in order to find a seat in another math class where she can understand. Can we not brainstorm something and help her succeed? Still the Chair said flat no. The teacher's contracts forbid them having over a certain number of students.(Aren't the teachers working without a contract at present?) She cannot switch a child into a full class. My response was that if the classes are already overfull, it shouldn't make a difference if one more is there. But it DOES make a difference to the child's success if she understands the material at the hands of the new teacher.

Rach is considered a real positive in all her classes and another teacher might be willing if they knew how hard she tries and how well she is thought of my her other teachers. Couldn't we ask? No, we couldn't. Her present math class has less than 30. And the numbers seemed to be where the issue lies. Part of her education is to learn to deal with what life throws at her. (She is- she's trying to change what isn't working.)

She said she understood my concern. But she insisted the teacher was competent and prepares his students well for the more advanced classes, which she teachers. I said it was a learning style problem,so that didn't apply in my daughter's case and she was struggling and deserved a solution. Our personal tutor wrote the school a letter saying she saw this affecting Rach's self-confidence and hoped they would allow her to switch teachers.

Without the Math Chair's willingness to discuss it further, I'm stopped. Rach is so frustrated by the math- she's gotten a D- on her last test, that I now see it affecting her concentration on her other subjects. She's making an appointment with Ms Tanner, the VP today and asked me to attend as well. She is attempting to resolve a situation that is non-productive and now affecting her other classwork.

I want to know from any other parent who may have gone through this with BHS, what the most successful course of action might be to help her. WHAT POWERS DO I HAVE? Could I, for example, withdraw her from the class physically (it's her last period) and have her work with a tutor, taking the tests only? Could a math teacher willing to take her in, override the Chair's no? What rights do students really have to ask to learn?

My whole perspective has been to not make this a fight, but a request to come together to help a good student learn- it is the public school's mandate, is it not? Any help you can give me as I go into the next step of this is helpful. Thank you. Loni

I have not had good luck with math at BHS. Everyone is probably tired of hearing me talk about it, but let me take one more turn. I figure I've earned it after some of the supportive things I've said lately.

My interaction with math teachers and the math department has been very, very limited. I rarely visit the school, rarely call teachers, and tend to wait till things reach the crisis stage before I do. So I am neither a good example of an involved BHS parent nor a good source of advice. But I would like to share my experience - maybe it's helpful to some other parent.

Both my kids started with CPM math as freshmen. That means they were not on the "fast track". They both took to it about as well as cats take to water. They are nice guys, bright kids, but academic ambition is not in their repetoire. Their problem with CPM-style math is that they are not self-motivated enough to read and "discover" on their own, which seems to be the cornerstone of this teaching method. Furthermore, the de-emphasis on teacherly teaching, and the emphasis on learning from classmates, has meant (for my kids at least) that 1) their performance in class depends on how willing they are to get help from classmates (they aren't), and 2) they have developed an unhealthy cynicism about their teachers. My older son is convinced that the teacher is "lazy" and that she doesn't really know how to do the math, and that is why she isn't teaching it.

In fact their troubles have nothing to do with their teachers. Both my sons' math teachers this year have been extremely responsive and have both gone above and beyond what I'd expect from a high school teacher. Both, I think, are new to teaching, and I hope that they will stick with it despite the difficulties of teaching the unwilling children of ever-complaining parents in a huge public school like BHS.

Ms. Bracken is my junior son's algebra teacher. She phoned me one evening at 7:30 in response to a call I had made to the head of the math dept., Ms. Leventer. (I'd only called Ms. Leventer because I had to - my son needed her permission to progress to the second semester algebra since he had a D in the first semester.) Ms. Bracken listened patiently and offered encouragement. She reassured me that my son would be fine in second semester - his main problem was not turning in homework. We talked for over an hour, and she had to call me back several times because the school phone kept losing volume. She was still at the school at 8:30pm, not unusual, she said.

What is happening in his junior year is a re-run of what happened in his freshman year. He didn't pass second semester freshman algebra mainly because he never turned in homework. He disliked the group learning environment, and he refused to cooperate. He had to take the entire year again as a sophomore. Incredibly, I didn't realize this until a few weeks into his sophomore year. When I met with the then-chair of the math dept., there was sympathy, and understanding, but no alternatives. Not possible to make up the half year he'd flunked over the summer, not possible to take it at another school, not possible to drop the class and pick up geometry with a tutor, nothing else to do but sit through the entire year all over again. However it was possible he could take geometry over the summer, to catch up. He did, at Piedmont High summer school. He got a B+.

My freshman son's math teacher Ms. Treuting is amazing. She called me early in the fall with a status report and continued calling regularly after that. She allowed the kids to re-take any test, she sent home a booklet of extra credit problems over the winter holidays, and she was always available for questions. She did everything in her power to boost the non-performers like my kid out of the D-F range. At home, I was checking homework every night, and keeping track of grades and tests. I saw history repeating itself, despite my efforts and the herculean efforts of Ms. Treuting. I could not bear the thought of my son having to go through the same experience as his older brother. He had loved math at Willard with Ms. Berman in the 8th grade, and here we were slipping into the I Hate Math routine that CPM seems to engender in my kids. Sorry to say that there was a similar story in several other of his classes, and with the new retention policy, he seemed doomed to repeat his freshman year. The only choice seemed to be private school, and I am so thankful that we had this option. He changed to a new school in January. His first progress report there was great. A's and B's with only one C, in "Human Sexuality". He has an A in math! When I asked him what the difference was, he said "it's easy - I already had it all in 8th grade." (... and it's very structured and the class is very small and the teachers have a much lighter load but ... MY KID MADE AN A IN MATH!) I think this speaks well of the math instruction in public schools but it also proves to me that my kids' grades may be more a reflexion of the teaching style, than of their actual ability to absorb information. My kids can make good grades in math, even in a very demanding intensely condensed class over the summer. But how well they do depends almost entirely on the way math is taught.

When I had to call Ms. Leventer recently, to seek permission for my junior to progress to Semester Two of advanced algebra, I attempted to explain my CPM problem. I wanted to explain why I thought my son could handle the second semester, even though he had a D in first semester. I described the problems my kids have had over the last three years with the CPM method of self-discovery, and the success they have had with other methods. Somehow the conversation turned into a debate, heated at times, on the merits of CPM. Ms. Leventer told me that CPM has been shown to be the most effective method for the most kids. Who makes the decision about which math texts are used, and how math is taught at BHS? I asked. The BHS math department does. Isn't there any way for a parent to make an appeal? Yes - talk to the head of the math department. Aren't there any teachers who'd be willing to teach math in a more traditional way, for the kids who don't respond to CPM? No. The math department agrees that CPM is very effective, and BHS has the high test scores to prove it. All the teachers agree? Yes. They are all in agreement.

Too bad for my kids I guess - it works for everybody else. So my conclusion is that if you have a kid who doesn't respond to the officially sanctioned math curriculum at BHS, you are on your own, and it is going to be a rough four years for you and your kid.


Dear parents, teachers and administrators,
Thank you!! The response was warm, supportive and,started at 7am Monday morning, filled with energy! Almost everyone suggested I take it to Ms. Saunders directly, which I will do after I do *my* homework and find out a bit more about other Math teacher possibilities.

I believe a successful teacher-child relationship is really unique to each pair, which is why I chose not to mention the teacher's name. What works badly for one can be just the right type of situation for another. (I didn't realized I'd set up a guessing game, but I had, and everyone who guessed, guessed wrong!) I've heard good and bad about several teachers, some more consistently judged than others, but heard a pretty mixed response. Many parents understood that there are good, if difficult demanding teachers,and some wisely also spoke to the issue that the teaching style can make the learning impossible for a child, defeating the child's purpose for being there. It was important to take in all these opinions.



Tutoring help with Math at BHS



The Math department has a list of (unscreened) tutors - this list is most likely posted in your child's class. However, I find the best tutors to be students who have taken the class. We have MANY BHS grads at UCB who could be employed in this way. We also have about 10 students who have already completed Calculus and are still attending BHS (although this does not help with the Physics). Your child may know some of these students or grads. If not, Ms. Bled, the college counselor, or I can recommend them. Good luck! -Laura Leventer, former Calculus teacher and Math chair (now VP)

What math level is your son? There are a LOT of students who work together in H203 after school. Ms. Leventer is there as well. I'm not sure if all of the students are Math Analysis or a variety of levels.

There is Algebra II tutoring a couple days a week after school in the southeast corner room on the thrid floor of the "H" Building. In the same room there is Algebra I tutoring on alternate days.

MANY of the math teachers have tutoring at lunch in their classrooms.
Flora Russ, Computer Science (1/00)

And for math...the best resource he found was to track down Mr. LeBlanc in his class room! He didn't have LeBlanc as a teacher, but got the word from someone that he could explain things, was kind, and was often in his classroom at lunch.

Linda (7/99)

Re: Math Tutor for AP Geometry. The Math department at BHS has a list of tutors. You or your student should talk with the teacher and see if they have any recommendations or know anything about them. There is one tutor on the list who is an older man which my daughter's math teacher thought was quite good and expensive. I think his name is Harry or Henry. We did not have him so I can't speak from personal experience. Good luck (4/99)