Middle school wins award for innovative approach

Principal Vincent Gassetto addresses students at M.S. 343. Courtesy of M.S. 343

$25,000 prize awarded to M.S. 343 for method that prioritizes memory, not test scores

A small Mott Haven middle school is tinkering with the conventional wisdom about ways to educate children. Education experts are paying attention.

M.S. 343, the Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology, located at 345 Brook Avenue, was awarded a $25,000 Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize in July from the Teaching Matters foundation, for an approach that emphasizes memorizing and repetition, rather than on test scores.

Several years ago, the school’s faculty and administration noted that although students were testing fairly well, they couldn’t remember what they had learned, recalled principal Vincent Gassetto. That’s when a light bulb went off.

“We started really prioritizing certain standards,” said Gassetto. “In math, we focus on five to six key standards or skills for each grade, things that we know for this particular grade, the kids must master.”

Teachers work together to determine what material individual students are having the most difficulty retaining, and what they will need to know in later grades or on standardized tests. Then, rather than discarding the old and moving on to the next challenge, faculty reintroduces the same material they had already taught the students months earlier, to encourage memorization.

A month later, the students are tested on the material three separate times to gauge what they have retained. Only the highest of those three test scores is recorded. Teachers regularly provide the students with feedback so they know what they need to keep working on.

“This process has helped to shift the mindset of grades and what it means to learn at our school,” said Devyn Shapiro, a math teacher and peer instructional coach at M.S. 343. “When students inquire about how they can improve their grade, they are now aware that they have to improve their knowledge on a topic and not just submit a couple of missing assignments last minute. Extra credit is the extra practice the students realize they must do to improve for the next assessment.”

Math teacher Jeremy Owens recalled working two years ago with an eighth grader who was struggling. After each test, he asked the student to reflect on what she had learned and what she needed to improve on.

“Each time, she said, ‘This is what I’ve learned, and then I need to learn this next piece in order to improve my score.’ And on the next one, she’d actually mastered it and her score had gone up, and then she did the same thing again,” Owens said. “It sounds very basic, but it’s sort of like an epiphany – the magic happens.”

Angela Cunningham, the school’s parent teacher coordinator for 14 years, says she has stayed with the school as long as she has because she finds the unique approach to learning exciting, and has observed that students are just as happy with the learning process as their parents. She credits that excitement to a staff that pays attention to its students, and an environment that feels like a “family setting.”

“Being from the community, I think that a lot of these kids outside face a lot of challenges, different challenges,” Cunningham said. “When they’re here, they have that stability.”

A portion of the $25,000 cash prize will be used to create a digital platform so students and teachers can access their progress reports at any time, said Gassetto.

The school’s next challenge will be to adapt the memory-based learning process to subjects other than English and science. No lift is too big for staff and teachers, said Gassetto, now that they have become comfortable with the process.

“We feel like we’re on to something, so every year we’ll try to modify it and make it a little bit better,” he said.

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