West Chicago Elementary District 33 has introduced a revamped math curriculum this school year with an eye toward a new state standardized test coming in 2014.
District officials and teachers say it's a more rigorous approach designed to teach students the language of math in real-world problems.
On a recent day in a classroom at Wegner Elementary School, sixth-grade students were putting that new curriculum to work by dividing fractions. Problems about wallpaper and jewelry challenged them to identify dividends and divisors as opposed to just crunching numbers.
Officials say math problems like those and the unveiling of a new language arts curriculum next fall will prepare students for the new state assessment in the 2014-2015 school year. It's a benchmark tailored to the Common Core standards and intended to gauge students' readiness for college and careers in a global economy.
In order to meet that goal, math exercises in West Chicago now emphasize real-world applications. In the second grade for instance, students solve problems using money.
Teachers also are introducing algebra skills as early as kindergarten so students are prepared for algebra a year earlier than in the past -- by eighth grade instead of as freshmen.
It's part of an overhaul that has teachers relying less on a core textbook, finding time to reteach skills to struggling students and providing feedback to the district on how it's all working.
In the spring, district officials will consider teachers' recommendations when they take a last look at the math curriculum before presenting it to the school board for final approval.
Teachers say the new curriculum provides more engagement with students and clearer goals for everyone involved. But it also creates new challenges in terms of finding proper pacing for introducing and developing the more rigorous skills.
"It's definitely had its growing pains," said Karen Apostoli, a sixth-grade math teacher at Wegner. "I think it was overwhelming (at first)."
Meanwhile, parents are receiving weekly newsletters noting what their children are learning in math classes with tips on how to study at home. In addition, parents can expect the draft of a new math report card next fall.
"It will be much more informative," said Kristina Davis, the district's director of learning. "Parents will be able to know very specifically what skill their student is either excelling or struggling with so they can provide more support."
Apostoli doesn't anticipate an immediate jump in math scores in the district, where more than 69 percent of students are low-income and more than half have limited English proficiency. Illinois Standards Achievement Test scores for math in the district already are superior to other subjects, according to the 2011 state report card.
"In the short-term, I think we will probably struggle overall," Apostoli said. "In the long-term, I don't see anything but positive coming from this."