Tim Smith has done the math.

The Lewis and Clark Elementary third-grader was banging out math problems last Friday at a rapid pace, every bit as quickly as the fourth-graders around him.

Let's see. If I master fourth-grade math in the third grade ...

"By 12th grade, I won't have any math at all!" said Tim enthusiastically, his little mop of semi-spiked blond hair bouncing on his head.

There is no 13th grade in public school, so Tim's math checks out.

And he's not the only one at Lewis and Clark doing some figuring. The school's teachers and administrators have calculated that bright students like Tim who excel in mathematics are more than capable of moving up a whole grade.

Lewis and Clark is the only school in the Missoula County district to have what is known in education-speak as "single subject acceleration" as part of its math program.

But the teachers who run it call it "Walk to Math."

Teachers like Jane McAllister, who has taken Tim into her class for the one period a day that he leaves his fellow third-graders.

"He is one of those adults in a child's body," said McAllister, shortly after Tim and the rest of the class broke for morning recess, adding metaphorically that "he's got all his drawers labeled A to Z, and in order."

Lewis and Clark began the program two years ago, just as MCPS began a fresh push to raise the math scores of its students. The Math Expressions curriculum worked well, and some students at Lewis and Clark were quickly mastering their grade level.

And because Lewis and Clark is the only MCPS school with multi-age classrooms (there are four where first- and second- graders mix), implementing "Walk to Math" was fairly simple.

"Particularly in those early years, a student who has a gift or utility in a certain area can move up a level without much disruption to the class," said Principal Jack Sturgis.

The program applies to second- and third-graders, who show particular acumen in math.

Moving the student up is not just based on an impression, but on the student's measurable mastery of the material, as revealed in his or her scores on multiple standardized tests.

"We have to be absolutely sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that the student has mastered the curriculum," said Sturgis.

In its first year, four students jumped a grade. Last year, the number was three, and this year, Tim is one of seven kids to be singled out for advancement.

He wouldn't be with this class of fourth-graders either if he wasn't mature enough to handle it - or that "adult in a child's body" who his teacher sees.

"We also talk to parents, and we want to be sure the child is emotionally ready as well," said Sturgis.

Some accelerated students are not accustomed to being challenged in math or other areas, and that can pose a problem in itself, said McAllister. Students not used to those challenges sometimes give up more quickly than others.

"One of my goals for the year is to help kids work through those struggles," she said.

MCPS is looking at implementing accelerated math across the district. Sturgis is working with the gifted education and curriculum departments, along with teachers, to do just that.

"I think it is critical," he said. "But I'm happy to have Lewis and Clark pilot all of this."

Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.


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