I have found only one other U.S. program, at the University of Minnesota, that teaches calculus to eighth-graders or even younger students. Since my first visit to the Pasadena program, it has spread to four schools in that district, with 200 students in grades six through 10 taking extremely accelerated math.
The six middle schoolers I met in 2017 scored 5, 4, 3, 3, 3 and 2 on the five-point AP exam — all but one a passing grade. Five of them will be taking college courses in differential equations, abstract algebra and discrete mathematics as 10th-graders at Pasadena High School this fall. About 60 percent of Pasadena students come from low-income families.
For decades the public schools in Pasadena, where I have lived on and off for 19 years, have had no better than a mediocre academic reputation. To see such acceleration is startling, and so is this: The program — called the Math Academy — was designed by parents, who are usually told to butt out of school curriculum decisions.
Another group of parents connected to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for instance, suggested a more affluent district near Pasadena adopt a similar accelerated math program. They were told their plan was “not fully research-based,” and officials raised “concerns regarding its developmental appropriateness for 13- and 14-year olds.”
Jason and Sandy Roberts, the math-savvy parents who originated the Pasadena program, say that if a district wants to keep families from abandoning its schools, administrators should offer math courses for the best students that competing charters, private schools and wealthier districts don’t have.
“I am very, very pleased with the way the program is going,” said Brian McDonald, superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District.
“We’ve heard from a lot of parents that [without the Math Academy], they would have left the district for private school,” said Jason Roberts, a software developer. One new enrollee, he said, transferred from a private school.
A parent wrote the Robertses about his daughter: “I knew she was bored in school, but I did not fully understand exactly how bored she was [until she enrolled in the academy.] . . . She is happier than I have seen her in ages.”
This coming school year, 140 sixth- and seventh-graders at three Pasadena middle schools will be taking math courses usually given to 10th- and 11th-graders. Thirty-eight eighth-graders at two middle schools will enroll in Calculus BC, the more advanced of two AP calculus options.
The district also offers summer courses in drawing using mathematical functions, math problem solving and math research. There is a second-year college course in mathematical proofs that Jason Roberts, teaching this summer, thought was too tough until he tried it out on sixth-graders and found they loved it.
Most of the students in the Math Academy are what schools call “gifted,” but few other districts advance such students this way. Roberts said the middle schoolers’ success in AP Calculus BC came despite their lacking the test-taking savvy and conscientiousness of 18-year-olds. “Their scores don’t reflect the true extent of their mathematical knowledge and skill,” he said.
The arrival at Pasadena High of math courses above the calculus level has led the science department to offer accelerated courses for ninth-graders such as AP Physics C. The Math Academy classroom at Pasadena High needs renovation, so the Robertses and other parents are looking for ways to pay for that.
The program won grants from the W.M. Keck and Bacon Family foundations. They help pay the salaries and benefits for two new instructors with math doctorates who taught at the University of Georgia and Michigan State University.
Students have to pass a qualifying test to be admitted to the program. The Math Academy has had some success using tutoring sessions three times a week to increase the number of sixth-graders admitted.
In May, 24 Pasadena eighth-graders took the AP Calculus BC exam, four times the number from the year before. Results aren’t available yet.
Parents of gifted children in the rest of the country know aggressive acceleration complicates school scheduling and takes administrators out of their comfort zones. But they still wonder why their kids can’t get what so many kids in Pasadena are getting.