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What is up with Howe Sound Secondary math?

The multi-year plan is to keep Workplace Math with a goal of transitioning most kids to university-required courses; focus on numeracy throughout education.
The goal for Howe Sound Secondary's Workplace Math is to move as many students who complete that class to advanced math to ensure students have as many post-secondary options available as possible.

That was the message when Howe Sound's high school math outcomes and planning were presented at the June 9 school district meeting.

The courses Workplace Math 10 and Foundations of Math and Pre-Calculus 10 have been hot topics of late for the school district's teachers, parents, students and administrators

A few years ago, in looking at stats, the district determined there was an over-representation of Indigenous learners taking the Workplace Math 10 course, according to Antony Blaikie, vice-principal at Howe Sound Secondary, one of the presenters at the board meeting June 9.

"The main concepts covered in this course involve a look at finance, measurements, scales and shapes. Applications of the math used in this course would be highly-valued in trades programs, culinary programs, personal budgeting, and direct entry into the workforce after graduation," reads an online course description.

About 25% of resident students at Howe Sound chose Workplace Math 10, while 75% chose Foundations, in the 2019 /2020 school year, according to stats presented by Blaikie.

(International students were excluded from this data.)

In the Workplace Math class, 19% were Indigenous and 81% were non-Indigenous.

The percentage of Indigenous students at the school is 10 to 12%, according to Blaikie.

"The short story is, there is an over-representation of our Indigenous students in the Workplace Math 10 class," Blaikie said. "We see fewer students coming over from Don Ross choosing to enter into Foundations of Math and Pre-Cal 10. It is below what our background Indigenous Grade 10 population percentage is."

This over-representation is happening year-over-year regardless of the changing population, he said.

Roughly 22% of all students went on to take something other than Workplace Math.

"They up-mathed. They continued their math career," Blaikie said.

From this data, the math department at Howe Sound formulated a multi-year math plan.

The plan

The goal of the plan is to increase the percentage of students transitioning from Workplace math to a more advanced math to 50% in the short term and 75%, long-term.

In a few years, the department will look at all the data again and see what needs to change and what is working.

"It is really changing the conversation around math in the district and in Squamish. Where we are starting to see the discussion on the district level is really understanding that numeracy starts in kindergarten and what happens in the elementary and what happens in the middle schools, of course, will impact student decision making when they hit Howe Sound," Blaikie said.

Teacher Blair Yeung-Meadows, head of Howe Sound's math department, said that the aim in high school is to challenge each student, work with them to help them through, and maximize their post-secondary options.

The students can take Workplace 11 after Grade 10 and then still transfer to the advanced Grade 12 classes, Yeung-Meadows said.

Personalization is key to making sure each student achieves their goals, he added, and something staff are working on.

At the end of Workplace 10 or 11, staff have begun conducting exit interviews with students where the youth are asked about their goals and what they plan on taking in the upcoming year.

Out of 14 Workplace 11 students, they met with 12 last year.

Most asked what teachers recommend, Yeung-Meadows said.

"If students are finishing with Math 11 before they have even finished their high school career, there are certain opportunities that have been shut to them," said Blaikie. "We have done the numbers, and there are still every trade program available, and there are a number of colleges, and there are still a number of university programs available to kids with Workplace Math 11, but if you wanted to go to UBC science, Workplace Math 11 is not good enough. You cannot get in."

Eight of the 12 Workplace Math students interviewed shifted into Foundations next year, Yeung-Meadows said, adding that is a "huge success."

Blaikie said the current administration went to the math teachers, who came up with the plan. "We just need to see where that plan goes. It is going to take a bit of time and let's see if the data in a couple years supports what they are doing then we need to continue to support that. It has to be… a data-driven process. If we are seeing an increasing number of students taking Foundations of Math 12 or jumping into a pre-calculus course, that doesn't mean Workplace should be phased out."

Math-based teacher-teams are also meeting with Indigenous support workers before each semester, which is a new thing Yeung-Meadows said is helpful.

More information is needed, Yeung-Meadows said, and so a student survey has been created that kids will fill out after every math class.

The questions include what students plan to take next and how motivated they feel to do well.

Is the ultimate goal to do away with Workplace Math?

Blaikie said the plan is not to do away with Workplace Math.

"It is the current view of Howe Sound Secondary, the math department and the current administration that Workplace Math 10 and 11 have a place in the school in the school and they have a place in the B.C. curriculum," Blaikie said.

Challenging the underlying assumptions

But aren't these plans based on an underlying assumption that students — Indigenous or not — who choose Workplace Math courses — which are useful for careers in the trades — are ultimately making a lesser choice? Why is going to university necessarily a better choice?

"That is a tricky question because it is a value judgment. What do you value, as an educator, as a parent," Yeung-Meadows said. "You will find teachers who disagree, you will find administrators who disagree, but my personal opinion is each one has its place and it is important to recognize student choice."

Blaikie said it is all about opening options, not saying one is lesser or better. What used to be common was in Grade 9, math teachers would tell students what they should take in Grade 10, and that would continue through the grades.

"We have really tried, within Howe Sound, and I think within the district, is to try to move away from that and really start saying, 'What do you want to do, and what do you need to do that?'"

Both educators stressed that the admin and teachers know the kids and what they are planning.

"We start that conversation in Grade 10, and we try to support them, whatever that path is," he said. "We are going to try to build a grad program that supports their plan because we, as a school, believe in the student choice."

Howe Sound offers unique trades and career program options, he added.  

Math anxiety

In a recent survey of 129 math students at Howe Sound, about 80% were at least somewhat anxious about math. (17% said they were not anxious at all).

Blaikie said math teachers are also mental health support workers in a way.

"Students don't walk into school saying, 'I am so terrible at science; I suck at English,'" he said. "They walk in saying 'I suck at math.' and we really need to address that. It starts in Grade 10, meeting them where they are at and building their confidence and building."

It is a bigger question why so many in our society have math anxiety and not something the men can put a finger on.

There is a shortage of math teachers, which raises the question if enough math teachers are being trained through the system, Yeung-Meadows said.

There is an increasing focus on numeracy in the district at all levels, Blaikie said. He noted the needs of each school are very different throughout the corridor.

At Howe Sound, math specialists not only know the content but are really passionate about math, he said.

"I walk into these math classrooms, and I have spent time in every math classroom in my school. They are passionate. They have very different teaching styles but they are all deeply, deeply committed to teaching math, and they have specialized in math and that is a huge part of it," he said.