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A ‘Revealing’ Decision: SV School Board Dispatch, May 2024

School Board Dispatch

Saucon Valley School Board member Bill Broun writes about the board’s decision this week to enter a five-year commitment with the top-grade McGraw Hill mathematics program ‘Reveal’ as part of its broader efforts to make scholastic excellence a renewed focus.

Est. Read Time: 4 mins

Here’s this month’s dispatch to the Saucon Source. I’m running down the latest big school board happenings from my limited perspective. To reiterate, as always: I’m writing only as one of nine board members, all with unique views. My take is no way represents the position of the board or district.

There have been some searingly candid committee meetings since December about the need to raise Saucon’s academic game. What these tense exchanges have taught me is that good things come out of honest, even difficult conversations where there is earned mutual trust and a focus on scholastic excellence. And without a bit of sturm und drang—better known in Hellertown as “drama”—complacency has a way of sneaking in.

To wit: This week was Saucon’s big Reveal “reveal,” and it represents the new board’s first real triumph of collaborative growth, in my opinion. What it “reveals” above all is a district willing to look hard at itself and strive for better things.

On Tuesday night, our board did what we could to help this effort and made an emphatic five-year commitment to the top-grade McGraw Hill mathematics program.

Reveal certainly raises the math bar at a middle school where troubling data has emerged recently. It happens in a national context where middle school math anxiety has become a big focus.

It’s a $104,210.71 pledge, unanimously passed, and it covers Saucon’s core math instruction in our biggest math “problem grades” of fifth through eighth.

When I saw Director John Conte—one of the board’s most conservative members—smiling across the Audion during the deliberation, and I felt myself smiling, I thought: Is this what nonpartisanship looks like on a school board in America in 2024?

Led by middle school principal Dr. Lensi Nikolov and a whipsmart team of Saucon math, tech and education wizards, a persuasive case was made for the adoption of Reveal’s more rigorous, real world-based approaches. Along with Dr. Nikolov, Saucon’s instructional tech guru and teacher Pamela Dobson; teacher Amanda Holveck; Assistant Principal Michael S. Sakelarides; and special education teacher Dana Russo found a board that seemed primed for change.

“One of the things we prioritized…is really looking outside of ourselves as middle school teachers and Saucon Valley School District,” began Dr. Nikolov.

The best way I can describe Reveal is that it uses the language of mathematics to grasp everyday life in a series of “deep dive” scenarios that students must struggle positively to work through.

Instead of teaching the math principle first, it starts by nudging students into real-life examples and invites them to wrestle with learning on paper and on screens. Only then does it build toward theories. Productive struggle is encouraged.

“I really like the idea of using real-life examples,” said Director Dr. Laurel Erickson-Parsons, who also asked about where the program was being used successfully.

Partly in response, Dr. Nikolov described how she and her colleagues had striven to learn from other “high-performing” districts both locally (such as Southern Lehigh) and farther away.

This is something I know that I and board President Dr. Shamim Pakzad had particularly called for in committee, along with others. Being the best in the Lehigh Valley just isn’t enough. We need to aim higher, we feel.

Dr. Nikolov explained how the team had emailed and talked extensively with the assistant superintendent of Unionville-Chadds Ford and others, for example, where “they’re very, very happy with [Reveal]” and have been using it for years.

UCF, in Kennett Square, Chester County, has some of the highest state and nationally ranked schools in Pennsylvania. The sister district was even open to hosting visits by Saucon math teachers who want to see how Reveal works in practice, said Dr. Nikolov.

Reveal is heavy on celebrating STEM careers and how engineers, for example, use math, I noticed. It also uses on-trend, fun, relatable topics in examples—social media followers, soccer field layouts, popcorn, go-carts, etc.—and provides constant opportunities for students to write about their thinking.

This no-holds-barred embrace of math rigor sort of surprised me, personally, but perhaps it shouldn’t have.

There are a host of math and science “nerds” on the board, after all, but one gets the sense their numbers have reached a sort of critical mass or “tipping point,” and an arithmetical chain reaction towards higher math achievement has commenced.

Board President Pakzad is an engineering professor and renowned scholar; Cedric Dettmar an MIT alum; Dr. Laurel Erickson-Parsons a pediatrician; Jay Santos a computer engineer; John Conte is a retired IT exec with an MBA; Don Carpenter is a Lehigh-educated materials science engineer; and Viv Demko has years of “in-the- trenches” experience teaching math to children.

The coming of Reveal also marks the return to Saucon Valley Middle School of something missing in recent years in math education—a book. Reveal offers students a concrete “consumable” object they can hold in their hands and mark up and write formulas and shapes and graphs in.

I think that bringing this new program online, if successful, may have been one of the most important things our district has accomplished in years.

In math as in board politics, it seems, growth comes from tension and struggle. The real proof will take years to “reveal” itself, but I’m convinced we got this move right.

Bill Broun, who lives in Hellertown, is a freshman member of Saucon Valley School Board. He is a professor at East Stroudsburg University and a novelist.

School Board Dispatch

Above, a screenshot from the presentation by district math teachers (Contributed image)

Contributed image


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William Broun

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