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Friday, June 3, 2011

Who cares about Celesta? - (part 1)

By Laurie H. Rogers

[Note from Laurie Rogers: This is part 1 of a series of articles on Celesta, a Spokane high school student whom I interviewed for “Cut to the Chase,” a radio show hosted by Rob Chase for the ACN Network. The show is located at 630 on the AM dial. This interview will air locally Saturday at 6 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and on Sunday at 10 a.m. Part 2 of these articles will discuss the district's response to my queries about how to help her.]

Celesta is a high school junior in Spokane Public Schools. She’s a good student – “attentive,” she says. But she’s missing basic math skills, and she’s struggling to get through her 11th-grade math class.

Celesta has a dream. She wants to be a business owner. She plans to attend university and get a degree, with a major in business and a minor in accounting. She says she wants to “run some kind of business of my own. I want to be in charge.”

Celesta has one more year before she is supposed to graduate and go to college. Without intervention of some kind, when she takes college entrance exams, she's likely to test into arithmetic. She’ll have to pay for several non-credit-bearing remedial math classes before she even begins college math classes. She'll be at risk of failing those remedial math classes. Almost 50% of the students who take those classes at our local community colleges do not pass them.

You wouldn’t expect Celesta to be in this position. Currently, she carries a 3.6 GPA. Up until 11th grade, she passed all math tests and got As in all math classes. She’s always been considered to be a good student. In fact, because they all did so well in their math classes, she and more than two dozen other students were placed into honors pre-calculus. There was never any indication before this year, she said, that they had gaps in math skills, or learning issues, or that they were struggling in any way. None was considered to be a special education student.

Celesta said she and many of her classmates aren’t proficient in algebra or geometry, but the problem is deeper than that. Their pre-calculus teacher must continually stop teaching pre-calculus so he can teach basic math skills to his class.

“Pretty much every day I hear him say, ‘Well, you should have learned this already, but we have to go over it,’” Celesta says. “It makes me feel stupid … He’s not really that sweet about it. He’ll be like ‘I’m teaching this lesson and half of you are gonna get it and half of you won’t, and a quarter of you will never get it.’ And I just feel like that quarter that’s never gonna get it.”

I tested Celesta a few weeks ago using a basic skills test, and she tested into 5th-grade math. However, her lack of proficiency with multiplication facts and division puts her into 4th-grade math. This year is the first year she’s ever seen long division, she says. Her pre-calc teacher showed the skill to his class, but there hasn’t been time to learn it to mastery. A deficiency in division inhibits students in any number of mathematical procedures, including determining averages, isolating variables, and simplifying fractions.

Celesta also doesn’t know her multiplication facts. This honors student couldn’t tell me what 6x8 equals. She didn’t know what a radical is. She expressed doubts about her ability to convert from fractions to percents to decimals. On the pre-algebra portion of my test, she got one answer out of 20 correct.

“I wish that I would have got direct instruction in the first place,” she says. “I feel like it is a better approach to math, and that if I did learn it that way in the first place, I would be very successful right now. But because I don’t know that, I need to sit there and pretty much have someone baby me, as much as I hate to admit it.”

If Celesta tests into remedial math at Spokane Falls Community College, she might not get direct instruction there, either. Not long ago, SFCC began offering its remedial math classes with an approach that looks a lot like the approach that has already failed Celesta.

How many young people in our communities are in Celesta's position? The district implies that Celesta's story is rare, but Celesta isn't alone or even unusual. In fact, students in her position are now the norm in America's public education system. I hear stories like hers all of the time. Every day. All day.

When I talk with younger people in my community -- in restaurants, fast food venues, and businesses around town -- they'll eventually confide -- somewhat sheepishly -- that they dropped out of college because they couldn't get through remedial math, or that they struggled in school but hope to go back. It hurts my heart to hear their doubts about their own abilities. I know those doubts were fostered in them by a self-serving bureaucracy that refuses to acknowledge its massive error in math. I try to reassure them, but it's a lot to explain in a few minutes. They go away, still certain that they just couldn't cut it.

Whenever I pay for purchases and wait for change, I watch the younger crowd stumble to do it correctly, often making mistakes, then not understanding as I count it back for them. And math isn't their only weakness. Their handwriting (usually just printing) is atrocious, their spelling is imaginary, their punctuation and grammar non-existent. This is not their fault. This is the district's fault.

And Spokane Public Schools isn't alone in having failed these people. The problem is mirrored across the country - from border to border and from coast to coast. When I talk with others about this -- teachers, parents, students, advocates -- their stories are the same as mine. They saw the problem, many spoke up, all were patronized and dismissed, and their district's administration just rolled over top of them. And the children in their communities continued to be failed.

Who cares about Celesta and all of these other poorly-educated children? Caring about them means caring about our communities and about our country. They are the face of our future, and they are not prepared.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is
Rogers, L. (June 2011). "Who cares about Celesta? - (part 1)." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published June 6, 2011 on at:


FreeRangeAuthor said...

"... and their district's administration just rolled over top of them."

This seems to me to be the central issue ... there are no adverse consequences to ignoring those who challenge what is occurring in their children's education.

Being correct, and having the solution to the problem becomes moot when those in charge can ignore those with the solutions, with impunity.

I have yet to read any description of how you successfully change this dismissive attitude of the bureaucracy.

-- Seattle

Anonymous said...

I was talking to a middle school math teacher the other day, telling her how much we appreciate her because math is so important. "In fact", I told her, "after graduation if you had asked me what the Most Important Class I took was, I would have said Algebra 2~ without question." She said, "Yeah, but how much do you use that in everyday life?"

I had a great come-back, of course. Anyone who has studied this issue would, too. But the point is that this is what our MATH TEACHERS are thinking! So only what is good for "everyday life" is what they are going to teach and are teaching.

How many times have we heard from Elem and MS teachers and administration folks, "Oh, you don't need to memorize those mult. tables anymore! Haha--That's what calculators are for!" "But you can't factor with a calculator!" And they look at you with a confused "What's Factoring?" look. Meanwhile, we grind our teeth and keep fighting these ignoramuses.

Anonymous said...

Good Article