Saratoga students developing math skills using Digits

Interactive curriculum putting school ahead of the curve

The transition to the new Common Core Standards has begun at Saratoga Elementary School in Morris.

"We're transferring from the Illinois State Standards to Common Core," explained Saratoga math and social studies teacher Vince Zomboracz, or "Mr. Z" as his students call him.

In the 2014-15 school year, the Illinois State Achievement Test will be replaced with a new test that is currently being developed in Illinois and 25 other states by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The test, known as the PARCC assessment, will be a series of four computer-delivered tests that will be given over the course of the school year.

"They're expected to master things earlier," Zomboracz said. He explained further that students will be learning concepts in fifth grade that they would have previously learned in sixth grade with the Illinois State standards.

To help prepare for the PARCC assessment and the new Common Core Standards, Saratoga's junior high students have launched a new math curriculum this year called Digits Math.

"(Common Core doesn't) go into effect until next year, but we're kind of doing it a year early to transition and make it easier for the kids and make it easier for us," Zomboracz said.

The program was piloted at Saratoga at the end of last school year and went into effect this year.

"Digits Math is just the interactive math curriculum based on the Common Core standards," Zomboracz said. "We viewed a couple (curricula) and they were all interactive. We just thought this would be more beneficial."

Mr. Z started his sixth-grade class Monday, Oct. 1 with a review from the previous lesson. He walked up to the SMART board and touched a sound button. Just like that, a character appeared on the screen and started reviewing the previous week's lesson on properties with the students.

The "property hero" showed the students the three properties they learned previously and described them once again.

They had learned about the zero property of multiplication and the identity properties of multiplication and addition.

Once the hero was done speaking, Mr. Z went over some examples with his class, of course, using the SMART board. Students took turns going up to the board, selecting an equation that matched one of the three properties and dragging it to the answer box on the board.

Mr. Z would explain to the rest of the class why a particular student's answer was correct or not. If they were incorrect, the teacher would work with him or her until he or she got it right.

Later in the class, the students also solved word problems covering their properties, as well. To go along with those, Mr. Z was able to write on the SMART board right next to the paragraph, as well as show pictures or diagrams to explain the problem visually.

Throughout the 45-minute class, students kept their eyes on Mr. Z and/or the board. Most of them would raise their hands each time a question was asked and were always able to work through a problem with little to no help.

One student admitted that she used to "zone out" during math class last year, but really enjoys the class this year.

"I like Digits Math because it's interactive," said one of Zomboracz's sixth-graders, Jillian Hosek. "I have an A in math."

Hosek said math wasn't her best subject last year, but now, thanks to the new program and helpful homework tools, she can always get 100 percent on her homework.

Jillian also likes that the new book is a lot lighter to carry than the old book.

When students sit down at home to do their assignments, they are no longer solving math problems on paper. With Digits Math, they use a computer program to complete the homework.

"Hard copy (homework) doesn't really give you any help," said Jillian's classmate Dakota Seale. "On the computer, it's way better. If you need help, it shows you examples, and if you're stuck, it will help you solve it and gives you another problem."

If a student answers a homework question wrong, the program will instantly grade it for them and give them options to either watch a video, look at another example problem and select another question, Superintendent Kathy Perry explained. If the student gets the alternate question right, the incorrect one is replaced with the correct one.

"Every single student should be able to get 100 percent if they stick to it and continue to go back and look at how it was done and try another question," Perry said.

If students do not have computers at home or access to a computer while they do their homework, teachers will print them hard copies of the assignments.

There are some gaps to be filled, however. Since the program is aligned to the Common Core Standards, rather than the Illinois State standards, the students and teachers are experiencing a learning curve.

"It's more challenging," Dakota said. "But it's getting us ready for the next grades."

Perry said the district should only need a few years to close the gaps.

Zomboracz said he is happy with how the program is working out so far.

"We have to work the kinks out ... but I think now that we're into it, it's going smoothly," he said.