TALENT — A half-time math support specialist will be added to Talent Middle School staff to better prepare students for algebra and to boost math scores that lag behind state averages.

“It’s much more than math. Getting these kids oriented for math in high school is really going to set them up to be successful and boost graduation rates,” said Aaron Santi, middle school principal.

Only 25 percent of TMS eighth-grade students tested at level 3 or 4 in the Smarter Balanced assessments for the 2015-16 school year. Statewide, 41 percent of eighth-graders reached levels 3 or 4, which indicates they are on track to demonstrating the knowledge and skills necessary for college and career readiness.

Measure 98, a voter-approved initiative to target funding to support career and technical education, boost college prep and prevent dropouts, will pay for the specialist.

All students will be back in class on Sept. 6. New students will have a class day Sept. 5.

“My sense is that our kids are struggling with applications,” said Santi. “They can do skills in isolation. But when you present them with a word problem or a scenario, it’s what applications will they need to use, what is essential. It’s a more complex thing.”

Those are the types of problems the students encounter on the Smarter Balanced state assessment the district began using a few years ago. Prior to that the district used the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which didn’t have as many of those scenarios, said Santi.

“Ever since the Smarter Balance came in we have struggled a bit with that in meeting common core standards,” said Santi. “There’s more applications than OAKS, but it's a realistic test in terms of what they are going to have to do in real life.”

The new specialist will work with students on concepts and ideas in their regular math class each week. There will be specific support to help grasp those concepts, such as multiplication of fractions. They will also teach three class periods of remedial skills, working with groups of 12 to 15 students.

A number of on-line math remediation programs are also available that students can use to learn on their own while the instructor helps others, said Santi.

Applications have been received and Santi hopes to have someone working within three weeks of class startup following interviews. A retired teacher might be hired but finding math instructors is a challenge.

“It’s tough to fill even a full-time math job, said Santi. “They are not a dime a dozen out there.”

Middle school students typically take math classes in both the sixth and seventh grade, then pre-algebra in eighth grade. Advanced students can take algebra I in eighth grade.

Out of 175 eighth-graders anticipated to attend this year, 132 will be in in pre-algebra, 33 in algebra I and 10 in geometry.

A small number of student who completed algebra I as seventh-graders will be taking basic geometry. Entering sixth-graders with high math skills may take a placement test that puts them into seventh-grade math, then they’d do pre-algebra as a summer study program before taking algebra in seventh grade. That sets them up to go to Phoenix High School for geometry.

“Many of them are go-getters and want to do that,” said Santi.

Usually TMS has four or five students in geometry, but this year has doubled that number. They do their first class hour at the high school and then are bused to the middle schools.

— Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.