Skyler Dirks never used to like math. "It was confusing," he said. "I would be told, and I wouldn't actually get it, because I'm not a very fast learner."
In middle school, Dirks' math grades began to drop. By eighth grade, he was close to failing.
Dirks wasn't alone. Fully 40 percent of South Albany's 400-some student incoming freshman class this year came to the high school with failing grades in either algebra or pre-algebra.
Something had to change, and South Albany educators believe they've found an answer. They've created an Applied Algebra class that combines half a math credit with half an elective credit for a yearlong experience building kites, making cookie dough and crafting various projects in the woodshop.
So far, it's working. The number of students failing math has dropped from 40 to 10 percent, said Matt Gray, special education and resource teacher, and pretty much all of the 10 percent stems from lack of attendance. "If they're here, they're passing," he said.
Dirks is among the success stories. "Last year I was at a D, close to an F," the freshman said. "Now I'm an A to a B."
South has tried other tactics to help students struggling with math. Teachers have done extra intervention, computer labs and lower-level math classes, but said they saw few results.
Principal Brent Belveal proposed the Applied Algebra class this year and the entire math team, plus woodshop teachers and the special education/resource teacher, took on the challenge.
"We're building this course basically from scratch," said math teacher Elyse Lipke.
The team started by looking at the Algebra I math standards and brainstorming ways to incorporate them into crafts. It's a semester's worth of standards spread over a year, but part of the reason it works, the teachers said, is because this particular population often needs more time to learn anyway.
The class also plays to the students' strengths, Gray said. "A lot of our students are hands-on learners. This provides a lot of opportunities to see if they really understand the math behind what they're doing."
Projects so far have included making birdhouses, metal toolboxes, miniature parachutes and model cars powered by mousetraps.
Students have had to measure distances and calculate angles. Chocolate chip distribution became the basis for the cookie dough experiment. Crafting a metal ruler was part of a lesson in fractions.
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"Primarily the goal of this class is to get them engaged and attending," Gray said. "We're trying to change their idea of what math is."
Right now, math teacher Steve Mayhue is teaming up with shop teacher Matt West to teach his students to build doghouses.
One lesson this week focused on measuring pieces for the base of the house, which they attached together with staple guns. Later, they'll calculate roof angles and add shingles.
It's sometimes a struggle for a failing student to communicate at all, let alone work with a team or learn to delegate, Mayhue said. But all of that is required in a shop class, and the skills get a lot of practice.
Not every class is a home run. Math teacher Kaylee Roderick said the teachers have learned by experience that some projects go over better than others.
Students say they get out of class what they're willing to put into it — and they know at least a few of their peers who aren't willing to put in much. "Some kids just want to mess around," said Brady Tappana, 15, with a roll of his eyes.
But several said the class is helping them catch on to academics in ways they'd never thought to try.
"Math wasn't my best concept to understand," said Tyler Waymack, 14. "It was a little bit complicated till I got in this class."
Until now, math "was just too hard for me," said Alaina Lynn, 14. "I just never understood it till now."
Even better, she added, the class teaches her how to use tools and build items she might need later. "Things we're going to do in life and all that."
Teachers do have the students practice traditional paper-pencil math with worksheets as part of the class, but it's too early to say what the effect will be when their charges sit down to take standardized assessment tests.
They're hopeful, however. From what they hear, students have buy-in — and that's half the battle.
"(I hear) 'This is the first time I've ever liked math and this is my favorite class,'" Roderick said. "Regardless of anything else, I think that's a huge win."