Partnership Spotlight: Intensification at High School of Science and Technology, Springfield, MA

A Teacher’s Quest for High-Quality Instructional Materials—and Results—in HS Mathematics Leads to Intensification

Jessica Johnson, first a high school Algebra teacher at Springfield’s High School of Science and Technology (Sci-Tech) and now the instructional coach, shares the story of her district’s efforts to implement a high-quality mathematics program throughout their 6 urban high schools and what led her to intensification. Ms. Johnson’s journey is one of diligence, trial, error, and an unwavering personal and professional commitment to providing all her students the chance for academic and personal success through high school mathematics.

Intensification, an approach developed by The Charles A. Dana Center, UT Austin, is, in short, the opposite of remediation. Rather than “just-in-case” teaching, it introduces Algebra on day one to previously struggling students (1-3 years behind). They experience a rigorous curriculum, with built-in supports and a “just-in-time” review of prior grade mathematics, rather than the traditional remediation approach of reteaching.

The Path to Success in Mathematics Instruction Takes Commitment

Ms. Johnson was introduced to Agile Mind’s Intensified Algebra I in 2012 when she was asked to pilot the program with 4 other high schools for underprepared students entering 9th grade. The objective was to help them catch up to their peers and pass Algebra I the first time. Some teachers were uncomfortable, given that the program required a daily double block of instruction and introduced new social, emotional, and academic development content within the core Algebra I materials. Ms. Johnson soldiered through the first year, committed to enacting the program as intended. Her effort paid off when the district assessments were given at the end of the first school year. Her students soared.

How Sci-Tech’s Math Students Fared During COVID and Beyond

When the pandemic came, teachers and leaders nationwide immediately began revamping educational frameworks for remote teaching and learning – almost overnight.

Ms. Johnson and her school leaders at Sci-Tech began seeing the benefits of Agile Mind’s blended classroom. They easily continued their instructional activities with surprisingly little disruption for teachers and students. “Having such high-quality materials in Agile Mind’s platform provided us with a seamless switch to remote teaching and learning at a time of critical need for both students and teachers. Teachers immediately found the embedded online interactive animations helpful in engaging remote students,” says Johnson. “The embedded professional support in the Advice for Instruction proved invaluable in keeping teachers motivated and on track with their school instructional plans in a highly stressful time,” she adds.

Substantial, Long-Term Gains in Math with Intensification

As an Algebra I teacher, Ms. Johnson had already seen what high-quality instructional resources looked like. In monitoring her early students, she was inspired by the continued impact of their experience in Algebra on their success trajectory in high school and beyond.

While other schools within the district chose various paths for students struggling in mathematics, Sci-Tech continued its commitment to Intensified Algebra and saw significant gains in HS math achievement.

The initial cohort of Intensified Algebra I students showed continued improvements in district and state measurements, outperforming peers who participated in the “regular” core Alg

ebra curriculum. This experience ultimately shifted each student’s entire HS mathematics trajectory. It instilled confidence and skills to pursue higher, or even advanced, mathematics such as Calculus and Statistics.

Intensification’s Impact – One Student’s Story

Ms. Johnson shared one student’s story, which she attributes to Agile Mind’s approach to intensification:

“One particular student who had struggled in and failed middle school mathematics came to Sci-Tech and began my Intensified Algebra I class on the first day of 9th grade.

‘He will not last a week,’ said a colleague, a teacher who had known him in middle school. This young student’s extreme frustration in math fueled negative behavior. It was evident from the first day of class that his pain and frustration ran deep. He was aggressive, and when he got flustered or challenged, he yelled and cursed.

One day he gave the correct answer on his paper for a problem we were working on when he suddenly began yelling as I reviewed one representation of how to solve it. ‘Ms. Johnson,’ he exclaimed, ‘that is just f….ing wrong! That’s not how it’s f…ing done! You gotta do this, and then that, and this other sh…t.” When I had him share how he arrived at his answer—which was the correct answer, by the way—he shouted out the steps he had taken. I could see the light bulbs turning on inside his brain as he realized that he had succeeded with the problem.

He gradually shifted his thinking as the program progressed, eventually catching up, moving forward in school, and doing well in Geometry and Algebra II. I was so pleased with his progress, but it wasn’t until late in his junior year that I realized what had happened to him. He approached me and said, ‘Ms. Johnson, do you think I could take AP Calc next year?’ It struck me then how much of a transformation he had gone through—not just in his academic progress but in how he saw himself. A student who never had the option to consider advanced math was now standing before me, asking me about AP Calc. This term could have remained foreign to him his whole life had it not been for the mindset shift in conjunction with the challenging math he had experienced.”

How Intensification Has Impacted the District

“This student’s story is not an isolated one,” says Ms.Johnson. “I can’t even begin to tell you all the students who now tell me:’ ‘Ms. Johnson, I have decided to pursue chemistry as a major in college (or computer science and even mathematics)!’ The Agile Mind programs [Intensified Algebra I and Agile Mind’s High School Math curriculum for Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II, and Advanced Math] have opened many academic opportunities for all our students who could not see themselves in such rigorous fields, to see endless opportunities now. The impact on the trajectory of our students and their confidence in math has been profound. So much so that all our high schools are now using Agile Mind for their entire High School Mathematics curriculum,” she added. “It’s incredible to see teachers motivated again and to see students realizing they can do the math and much more with their lives.” 

Apr 17, 2023 | Charlotte Dowd