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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

iCLASS takes high school students who are strong in math and prepares them to succeed in college armed with iPads.

Want to learn math?
There’s an app for that.

Edgewood ISD students prepare for college through a
pilot dual-credit program that arms them with iPads

As Esther Burton listened to her college algebra instructor explain how to graph rational functions one morning this fall, her high school math teacher watched from the back of the classroom.

"I assigned the bare minimum you need to do," Zachery Sharon reminded the 17 high school juniors seated before him. "That means you need to do more if you are having trouble with it."

Taking the initiative to stretch academically is a huge part of the lesson Sharon and his team-teaching counterpart, Memorial High School math teacher Michael Hughes, hope to impart to Burton and her classmates. The students are participating in iCLASS, a two-year program designed to take strong math students and prepare them to succeed in college—armed with their very own iPads.

iCLASS stands for Innovative Communities of Learning Advancing Student Success and is a collaboration between the Academy for Teacher Excellence in UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development and the Office of P-20 Initiatives, which works to increase the college-going rate of Texans. The program’s investigators already have begun gathering data that will allow them to assess what is working, how to improve and how best to apply this model on a larger scale, said Belinda Bustos Flores, professor of interdisciplinary learning and teaching and co-principal investigator. The iPads are an important tool to engage students and foster good habits such as persistence and self-motivation as they learn the math and science they need to be competitive, she said.

"We know that the jobs of the future require a population that is well versed and comfortable in math and science," Flores said. "By taking more math and more science [classes] sooner, it gives students a greater choice in terms of the field of study. For example, if a student has the goal of becoming an engineer and they realize, ‘I have to start off at math 101 and then I have to take college algebra,’ already they are deterred from their path."

Funded by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, iCLASS bundles into a comprehensive program all aspects of college preparedness, from technology to counseling to parental leadership and involvement. If this year’s students complete all their courses, they will graduate from high school next year with 12 hours of college credit, a big boost in their quest to earn a degree from a four-year university. A new group of juniors and seniors will join the program next fall and will be able to earn up to six hours of college credit before funding ends in December 2013.

The program’s first dual-credit course, college algebra, began this fall. Students will study pre-calculus this spring, calculus next fall and a science course—likely chemistry—in the final spring semester.

"A good [predictor] of a student succeeding in college is if they have earned college credit hours as a high school student," said Rachel Ruiz, assistant vice president of P-20 and co-principal investigator of iCLASS.

What makes iCLASS different is its comprehensive scope and its overarching goal of creating a college-going culture on a campus with predominantly low-income Latino students, many of whom would be the first in their families to attend college. iCLASS brings together the successful elements of a professional development community for teachers run by the Academy for Teacher Excellence and a dual-credit and parental leadership project out of P-20, Ruiz said.

As part of the project, 23 teachers at Memorial also received iPads and training on how to use the technology in their classrooms to ensure the continuation of lessons and techniques beyond the initial program’s lifespan. Flores said the iPads will give students and teachers access to online resources around the clock, eliminating study barriers such as distance and work schedules. It helps that iPads appeal to trend-conscious teens, she added.

"Sometimes bright kids choose to underachieve because it is not cool to be into school. We want the students to remain highly motivated," she said.

If students have trouble remembering how to solve a tough problem, help is just an app away. Burton’s favorite is the one that downloads her textbook to her iPad, but UPAD, a note-taking app, is a close second.

"It has really helped us to see what it’s like when we go to college," said Burton, who plans to be an architect. "High school is really different than college. We know it’s a select group. We’re working hard at it."

They had to work hard to get into the program, too. To qualify, students had to have taken Algebra II and the ACT, pass UTSA’s math entrance exam, attend an iCLASS math boot camp over the summer and acquire parental permission. Their college tuition and fees will be waived as part of the program.

Memorial, in San Antonio’s Edgewood school district, was selected for the program because of its student demographics and an existing relationship between the Academy for Teacher Excellence and the school district. Of 80 Edgewood ISD graduates accepted at UTSA in 2009, just 20—one-quarter—enrolled, said Lorena Claeys, executive director of the academy.

"We found that there was a great need," she said. "A lot of times students don’t see UTSA as a choice."

For his part, Sharon finds the high school students eager.

"They are probably one of the most engaged group of students I’ve taught," Sharon said. "It’s nice teaching students who want to learn."

Melissa Zepeda, a staff member from UTSA’s Office of P-20 Initiatives and program manager for iCLASS, attends every class and serves as a mentor to the students, monitoring their progress, suggesting useful apps to bolster their learning, working with parents and arranging tutoring if necessary.

"I know what they need to succeed at UTSA," said Zepeda, a former freshman academic adviser.

Just as important as mastering the subject matter is learning how to be resourceful and learn proactively, said Hughes, the Memorial math teacher who observes the lectures three days a week. He uses the other two days to review or expand on the material with the students.

"These kids are being forced to work independently on a level they never had to before," he said.

The chance for the students to get a solid start on college is an opportunity not lost on Burton’s grandmother, Esther Gonzales.

"I think it’s a great thing," she said, adding that she makes no secret of her enthusiasm for a program she sees as a boon to Memorial.

"‘You have this advantage, mija,’" she recalled telling her granddaughter. "‘Take advantage.’"

–Kate Hunger


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