Engage New York math program adds up for kids; parents see some negatives

Fourth-grade teacher Kathy Presley leads an Engage NY Common Core math lesson at Shackelford Elementary in Modesto on Tuesday.
Fourth-grade teacher Kathy Presley leads an Engage NY Common Core math lesson at Shackelford Elementary in Modesto on Tuesday.

“OK. Ready to beat yourselves? Ready. Set. Start your engines!” And with that, 34 fourth-graders, grinning ear to ear, dived into math drills.

The “sprints” push kids to finish more problems correctly, using plain old practice to improve their times, explained Shackelford Elementary School teacher Kathy Presley. It was one of dozens of strategies Presley uses tied to Engage New York math, the free, Common Core-aligned program used by Modesto City Schools, Turlock Unified and many other districts in the region.

The materials were developed in 2011 by the New York State Education Department, which offers all the curriculum materials, teacher training and testing, and parent guides for download through the website In the Common Core State Standards, math is the biggest shift, with every grade getting stronger math emphasis. A complete remake of sixth-grade through high school coursework will phase in.

To help elementary parents weather the change, Modesto City Schools sends out a newsletter for each chapter, telling them what their kids are studying, how it’s being taught, the objective and the updated vocabulary. It offered a Parents Math Night last week to give moms and dads a chance to ask questions and vent frustrations.

In one packed room, about 50 second-grade parents with crossed arms and frowns listened to an overview of math strategies their children were using. The class is moving too fast, one grandmother said. The homework is confusing, a mom said. “They get credit for the process, as well the answer?” asked another mom in disbelief.

“Yes. It’s more work for the teacher, but ultimately, this is helping kids,” Marla Mack told her. Mack, a senior director, shepherds math instruction at elementary schools throughout the district. “We are finding kids who weren’t getting it are doing better,” she said.

In another room, sixth-grade teacher Valerie Peters of Bret Harte Elementary School had fewer parents to talk to. “It’s a year of change for all your students. It is for us, too,” Peters said. But, she said, she likes Engage NY strategies.

“I find it helps close that gap. My advanced kids are challenged. My struggling kids are getting it,” she said before taking rusty adults through a ratios problem. “We learned it as cross-multiplication,” she said helpfully, then laid out five ways of solving the problem.

After the lesson, parent Angelica Lopez said she liked the system. “I think it’s better explained. What they have now is an option and they can show what works best,” she said through an interpreter.

Sitting in the audience, Fairview Elementary School Principal Christina Romero said Common Core is a shift away from just presenting math as steps to be plugged in. “With computers, the thinking was, ‘It’s at your fingertips, you just look it up.’ I think we’re going back to learning it,” she said.

Earlier that day at Shackelford, Presley’s class was learning place values. The drills asked students to find the midpoints between, say, 2,500 and 250, or 700 and 300. To help, kids had a vertical number line and a catchy poem with rules for rounding.

At her school, just off Crows Landing Road in south Modesto, seven out of 10 kids are learning English, and Presley said she constructs every lesson with vocabulary help in mind. “Learning about the vertical slide rule, we spent a lot of time learning what ‘vertical’ means. That’s not a word kids use,” Presley said.

Her fourth-graders said math is easier to understand this year than last year. “I like all the tools we get to use. We have poems,” said Alberto Sarabia.

“It was kind of boring last year,” said David Mendez. “Now we use different ways (to do problems). But it always ends up with the same answer – unless you messed up.”

The old curriculum, with its district pacing calendars and scripted lessons, did not work for her kids, Presley said. “With the previous curriculum, everything was modeled for you. A sub could just come in and teach it,” she said. “I think this is far better.”

Presley piloted the Engage NY program for a semester last year, on-site experience that gave teachers a sense of what was coming, said Shackelford Principal Ignacio Cantu. He said kids also work together more under Common Core, and he sees stronger bonds forming. “You can sense it in the classrooms,” Cantu said.

At Everett Elementary School, Principal Jim Osmuss said he sees Common Core math as a gain for younger students. “First grade is really where that (math) foundation is laid,” he said. “They’re incorporating concepts we learned so long ago, we forget how important they are.”

At Everett, where less than 3 in 10 students are English learners, teachers have hashed out what works for their students. “They tapped into each others’ strengths to pass their strategies along,” Osmuss said. “It’s been a much more transparent transition into Common Core.”

In Debi Glover’s first-grade class, a lesson on one-digit addition had most of the 5- and 6-year-olds counting their fingers. Glover kept listing different options, knowing 10 fingers would not be enough for long.

Students could start with the big number and “count on” to the answer, draw a picture, use a number line, draw a simple graph or flick beads on a simplified abacus.

“I like giving students multiple strategies,” Glover said. “No matter what their learning level is, there’s something out there for them.” In pre-Common Core days, “there was counting on fingers or guessing in their head,” she said.

“It’s actually more rigorous, which can feel good – or bad,” said Glover, adding that teachers are still finding a balance in how hard lessons should be. “I actually am a fan of Common Core, because I’m a fan of creating thinking, and it feels like that’s what we’re doing.”

As a teacher, Glover said, “I’ve had to learn some new vocabulary. I’ve had to learn to be more patient with getting to the final answer.” She thought for a beat, then added, “How you get there is becoming much more important.”