(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
On a recent Friday morning, Mario Umana Academy teacher Ellen Latham reviewed the latest statewide rankings in an online math program.
“Let’s click here and let’s see who the top school is in the state of Massachusetts,” Latham said to her algebra class as she projected her laptop display onto a whiteboard.
“Top school in the state — here we are!” she said, and the students began to applaud.
Latham clicked through to look at rankings by homeroom. This eighth-grade class was second in the state, below another Umana Academy class. Four more Umana classes were in the top 10. Another screen showed the Umana was ranked 82nd out of roughly 4,500 schools in the nation.
Latham’s students were happy, but they weren’t surprised. For months this urban school — where half the students are learning English and nearly one third are in special education — has led the state in the First in Math program.
It’s an example of how this once-struggling school has begun to turn around in recent years, but the school’s progress could be threatened by a cut in state funding.
Alexandra Montes McNeil, the school’s principal since fall 2009, has learned the Umana will lose state Expanded Learning Time funds that allowed it to create an eight-hour school day. Next school year, the Umana will offer either six hours and 10 minutes or six hours and 30 minutes of teaching each day.
“I just think that that’s a loss for the community and a loss for the school and a loss for where we are right now and how we’re doing,” said Montes McNeil, who is frustrated that the state did not take into account data from this school year that show student improvement.
“I’m hoping that … people will see what’s happening here and support us, because there’s really good work going on,” Montes McNeil said. “And we’re not perfect. I don’t ever want to be perfect. I want us to continue to improve.”
Continued improvement is also the goal of the First in Math program, which may be unaffected by the shorter day because most work is done outside school hours. First in Math is a set of games students play online for extra practice, starting with basic skills and advancing to more difficult material with each problem set they successfully complete.
The games provide instant feedback — praise for correct answers and encouragement to keep trying when an answer is wrong. Students also earn points for correct answers, and the program creates ratings based on which student, class, or school has earned the most points.
Every day at the beginning of class Latham recognizes the top player of the day, and two or three days a week she projects everyone’s scores to both announce high scores and give students who are lagging behind get “some healthy peer pressure.”
She gives top students typical rewards such as candy, pencils, and erasers, but to enhance their pride, she and some other teachers also give them a “player of the day” badge they can wear around the school.
“The kids really identify with their teachers, and they really respect their teachers, and they want to please us,” Latham said. “So when other teachers can see — without them having to brag — that they were the player of the day, that always kind of makes them feel good.”
This class is made up mostly of children from the school’s general learning group but includes five special-needs students who get extra help from Nadine Fernandes, an inclusion teacher. Latham said the special-needs students are doing just as well as the others.
“I don’t really believe that kids can’t achieve. I think they can,” she said. “I think you give them an excellent teacher and you give them a planned lesson and some dynamic instruction every single day, those kids are going to do just as well as everybody else.”
Dynamic instruction is Latham’s specialty. Though she’s been teaching for a decade, with seven years at the Patrick Gavin Middle School before coming to the Umana this year, Latham retains the energy and enthusiasm of a first-semester student teacher. Tall and thin, with a broad smile, Latham leads her class with an ebullience that reaches all but the surliest of eighth-graders.
Latham said she is always looking to improve her work and her students’ performance and asking herself what she can do to help them succeed. She gets her energy from seeing them do well, she said.
“When one of my students gives me the right answer to something, or a student struggles mightily on something and then they give me some fabulous answer that required some real critical thinking, there’s nothing that makes me feel better,” she said.
When Latham isn’t teaching, she devotes much of her time to furthering her own education and professional development. Last year, she was one of just eight teachers across the district certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Applicants achieve certification through a complex process and are then qualified to teach in almost every state in the union.
“It was probably the single most difficult project I have ever worked on in maybe my entire life. It was exhausting,” Latham said.
But worth it. “I found out I passed in November, and I think still now, every single day I think about it, and I’m still on a high from it.”
She and other educators at the Umana Academy use the First in Math program to instill a similar feeling of accomplishment in their students. Latham has installed a bulletin board on the first floor with pictures of the students with top scores, and Montes McNeil often includes the latest news about the school’s ranking in her morning announcements.
Latham feels fortunate to have a principal like Montes McNeil, who has an engineering degree and was a physics teacher and head of the science department at Boston Latin School before coming to the Umana Academy.
“Her heart’s in math and science education, so she gets it. She understands the need for it,” Latham said.
For Montes McNeil, success in math and science is one way to build a new pride in the school and overcome its past reputation. When students see that they can do as well or better than students at charter schools or expensive private schools, they feel good about themselves and the Umana.
“Competition in the school has really become very positive,” Montes McNeil said. “Kids are excited about who we are as a school. We’ve really tried to build the Umana culture.”
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)