Parent Volunteers, Spearhead Radical Acceleration Math Class for PUSD Students

Published : Tuesday, June 13, 2017 | 12:32 PM

Jason Roberts and his wife Sandy started coaching their son’s fourth-grade math team at a local Pasadena Unified School District school a few years ago as parents often do, however over the following three years they continued to work with those students in the form of a pullout enrichment class. Those same kids, now in the seventh grade, have just recently taken the AP (Advanced Placement) Calculus test that advanced high school seniors take with the hope of receiving college credit.

This small single class has also evolved into a PUSD pilot program now known as Math Academy and includes over 60 fifth through seventh graders at four different PUSD schools, with a former tenured mathematician teaching classes at three of these schools.

“When we started the class the following year as a pull out, I thought, ‘why don’t we try and teach the kids algebra?’” Roberts, who calls himself a parent-volunteer at PUSD, says. “My wife thought I was crazy. She was like, ‘that’s ridiculous, these kids are only in fifth grade, They’re just nine or ten years old,’ and I said ‘I don’t know, I think they might be able to do it.’ Sure enough, by winter break of their fifth-grade year, they had pretty much mastered Algebra I, and that’s with class only being three days per week.”

Roberts majored in mathematics at the University of Chicago, spent years doing startups and building high-frequency trading systems, and infamously turned down the CTO position at Uber, because he didn’t want to leave Pasadena which he now considers home.

When PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald learned about the work the Roberts couple were doing and saw that the kids were performing with enthusiasm and at such a high level, he immediately asked the couple if they would help him expand the class to a district program based on the same concept.

“The superintendent came and saw our class, got really excited, and he asked my wife and I if we could help him create a district-wide pilot that followed the same model.” Roberts says. “That took about a year to get organized, working through the bureaucracy and red tape and everything, but he was very much behind it. This past year, we finally got it going and we’re in four schools: Sierra Madre Middle School and Elementary, McKinley and Washington Middle. We did fifth and sixth grades. The kids and the parents are super enthusiastic about it.”

PUSD now plans to extend the Math Academy program to Pasadena High School; parents from neighboring cities like San Marino and La Canada Flintridge have also been inquiring about how to either transfer their mathematically-advanced kids into the district or how they can get such a program in their own public schools.

“Our belief is that once enough parents become aware of what’s being achieved at a struggling, under-resourced school district, they will have no choice but to pressure their respective school boards to follow suit, which will mark the beginning of a sea change in mathematics education across America,” Roberts says.

Roberts and his wife are now in the process of setting up a nonprofit, because “we want to spread Math Academy beyond just PUSD.” They have now been able to raise $120,000 from one private donor, with another $50,000 coming from a foundation that normally just supports Caltech and the Huntington.

Roberts says the program has recognized that elementary students who started learning advanced math early could go on to performing at par with the best students at some of the nation’s recognized science and technology institutions.

“I tell them, ‘I’m training you to go pro. My goal is that you’ll walk into Harvard or Stanford or MIT, and be among the most prepared kids there,’” Roberts says.

Under Math Academy, students can expect to develop their passion, skills, and insight to excel in the honors math and science programs of the most elite universities in the world. Students will complete the entirety of the standard high-school mathematics curriculum (plus calculus) by the eighth grade, in addition to mastering the essential techniques of creative problem-solving and proof-based mathematics.

The high-school years will then be devoted to pursuing all corners of undergraduate-level pure and applied mathematics with a particular focus on individual research projects.

Roberts says what makes the program even more surprising is that two-thirds of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged; their math education will far surpass that of any elite public or private school anywhere in the nation, and in fact, will rival that of most university undergraduate mathematics programs, he says.

“Nobody has heard of anyone doing this before,” said Roberts. “You occasionally have your one-off genius kid whose mother or father is a physicist or a mathematician and they’re home schooled and they’ve done a lot of special things, but never as a class and never at a public school, and not at scale.”

For more information about Math Academy, visit www.mathacademy.us.

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