Jason Roberts, wearing a green polo shirt, jeans and sandals, sits in a classroom at McKinley Middle School in Pasadena, Calif., feeding questions to four boys and two girls standing at whiteboards.
They are typical eighth-graders. The boys tease each other loudly. The girls draw cats on the board while they wait for the next question. The book Roberts uses: Advanced Placement Calculus.
AP Calculus for 12- and 13-year-olds? Even high school seniors rarely take that course. But this otherwise ordinary school district, with 69 percent of its students from low-income families, has created a program called the Math Academy to accelerate students at least four years above their grade level. The idea? Complete high school math, including calculus, in middle school and devote high school to more complex subjects: multivariable calculus, abstract algebra, probability, game theory and other college subjects.
The plan appears to be unique for a public school district, and its pace is not the only startling feature. The Math Academy was initiated by Roberts and his wife, Sandy. They are not teachers but parents with deep backgrounds in math. When Brian McDonald, the former accountant who is superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District, saw the Robertses' fifth-grade enrichment class for 14 students, he assembled skilled teachers to expand it.
As parents of gifted children across the country know, the fact that McDonald listened to and heeded parents is extraordinary. Although educators say they love input from moms and dads, they cringe at parents suggesting what to teach. When parents, including some from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, asked to establish a similar academy in a wealthier area near Pasadena, an official of that district said the program was "not fully research-based" and expressed "concerns regarding its developmental appropriateness for 13- and 14-year-olds."
When they were seventh-graders, two of the six students in Roberts's class got passing scores of 3 on the AP Calculus AB test. The others got 2s. Roberts, who designed several systems for Uber, thinks a year of preparation for the more difficult AP Calculus BC test will result in passing scores for all the students, including his and Sandy's oldest child.
Three campuses offer the middle school program from the Math Academy. Pasadena High School will start college-level math courses next year.
The Math Academy plans to enroll 60 students in each grade from sixth through 12th in Pasadena. That's roughly the top 5 percent.
In the Washington area, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has a handful of kids who have finished calculus before ninth grade, said Brandon Kosatka, director of student services. But his is the most selective public secondary school in the country.
The only other effort I could find anywhere close to what Pasadena is doing is the University of Minnesota's Talented Youth Mathematics Program. Its after-school schedule serves about 75 middle and high schools. Twenty-five of its 110 first-year calculus students are eighth-graders or younger.
Pasadena's program is based on the belief that talented math students are everywhere and that an ordinary district can accelerate its learning as well as a state university can. The University of California has approved Pasadena's high-school-math-in-middle-school courses. Nets Katz, IBM professor of mathematics at Caltech, said he likes Roberts "exposing the shallowness" of the standard high school math curriculum but wonders if he might be "sacrificing depth for speed."
If the Robertses' middle-schoolers can do college math in high school, might other districts try that? The Math Academy eighth-graders — David Geiselman, Nicole Kwan, George Meza, Riley Paddock, Colby Roberts and Caroline Vasquez — seemed to enjoy being on their feet for an hour, focusing and laughing.
"I want them to have a lot of fun," Roberts said.
In high school, they will have the usual mix of English, history and science, with some AP. In math, they will be far beyond that. Their parents and teachers wonder what effect that will have on them and their school.