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What students say Legislators should know as they vote on education bills

Page High School students, who came to the Arizona Capitol on Tuesday, shared their experiences during the COVID pandemic and with taking Algebra II that they said Arizona Legislators should keep in mind as they propose policy changes and vote on bills this session.

“Remote learning was really hard in a rural area without wi-fi. Most of us don’t have that type of resource, and we had to travel to a store or somewhere which was miles away to use it. There was a loss of learning,” said a young woman who is a senior at Page High School during Advocacy Day for school board members hosted by Arizona School Boards Association on Feb. 22, 2022.

School board members from around the state take part in ASBA’s Advocacy Day at the Arizona Capitol on Feb. 22, 2022. Photo courtesy of Ethan Schwager/ ASBA

Page High School is located in a small town in Coconino County on the southern shores of Lake Powell and serves students in the area, including many who live in the Navajo Nation.

She said that during the extended COVID-19 lockdown, remote learning, not being able to participate in sports and see their friends meant many students experienced intense frustration, anxiety and sadness.

“We didn’t have a freshman, sophomore and junior year,” she said. “We lost communication skills, relationship skills, leadership skills and we missed playing our sports.”

Another Page High School senior asked Legislators to be more open-minded and understanding of students’ circumstances.

“Many students have responsibilities besides school. Some of us have to take care of livestock. Some of us have to take care of siblings. Some of us take on challenges and extra-curricular activities. And some of us are leaders, especially with student council or student government,” she said.

What students say Legislators should know as they vote on education bills Page-Unified-High-School-Students-at-Advocacy-Day-1024x568
Page High School students, who came to the Arizona Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022 during Arizona School Boards Association’s Advocacy Day, shared their experiences with Algebra II and the COVID pandemic that they said Arizona Legislators should keep in mind as they propose policy changes and vote on bills this session. Photo by Lisa Irish/ AZEdNews

A young man who is a senior at Page High School said “The way the pandemic affected me was spiritually, emotionally, mentally, because I feel like kids stayed in their room almost all day. They didn’t go out and play, and at the same time there were trust issues with family members. It builds up a lot of anxiety and it frustrates one another and splits a family apart.”

“The virtual learning during the pandemic was a tragedy for me,” he said. “I live in a remote area and the internet service was limited. In order for me to have access to internet and attend classes, I had to leave home and drive to the highest point and even then, the service was slow, and I had to sit in the car a majority of the day. I would go home and do my work and drive back to do more work again.”

“It really frustrated me, because I live with my grandparents. I live with them because I had to sacrifice my own self, because no one else took the responsibility to take care of them,” he said. “As an indigenous person my grandparents are the ones that I live for. They were my number one leaders at that time.”

Another young woman who is a senior at Page High School said the pandemic affected her and her family members emotionally.

“My best friend had trouble going through this whole thing and it was hard to keep each other up but being there for each other is one of the things that helped us get through the whole pandemic,” she said.

Another young woman from Page High School said students need help with mental health, more counselors and more academic tutoring.

“Everyone needs help with academics all the time, especially through the pandemic,” she said.

Bill would provide Algebra II alternatives

Late last week, the Arizona House approved House Bill 2278, sponsored by House Education Vice Chair Rep. John Fillmore, would remove Algebra II from the current requirements for high school graduation but keep the requirement for four years of math including Algebra I and Geometry, and direct the Arizona State Board of Education to offer an alternative mathematics pathway to graduation that could include personal finance, statistics, computer science of business mathematics instead.

Arizona Capitol Television video: House Education Committee Meeting 2/1/22

“I believe that our kids should have more education given to them in regard to personal finance and business-related math,” said Rep. Fillmore, during the House Education Committee hearing where the bill was discussed on Feb. 1, 2022.

“We have been taking our kids and pushing them with college-oriented programs such as trigonometry and algebra advanced, but basic math for the kids to understand and have the ability to amortize a loan and do business discounting and understanding that sometimes when 60% off of an item in a retail store still may not be a good deal,” Rep. Fillmore said.

House Bill 2278, which received a vote of 33 ayes and 26 nays, but a Rep. Jennifer Pawlik’s floor amendment failed that would have required two additional courses that include the critical thinking skills in Algebra II and took away personal finance from the alternatives.

House Bill 2278 had its first reading in the Arizona Senate on Feb. 17, 2022, and was assigned to the Senate Education Committee, but it has not been heard there yet and is not on the agenda for the next committee meeting on Tuesday, March 8.

Students’ & education advocates response to the bill

Page High School students’ response to House Bill 2278 was mixed, with some who planned on careers in health fields saying Algebra II would be useful to them in their careers and others saying they didn’t see using Algebra II in their career path in music or education.

When asked about Algebra II, one Page High School senior said, “I didn’t think it’s necessary for what I’m going to be doing.”

“It was kind of hard,” said a different student. “I don’t know that geometry prepared us for it.”

Another Page High School senior said, “I think our math department needs to be more helpful to us. I’ve witnessed how a lot of kids struggled, and they had trouble getting the help they needed.”

AZEdNews: Advocacy Day 2022 at the Arizona Capitol

Video shot & edited by Mingson Lau/ AZEdNews

Some education advocates are against House Bill 2278.

“I think we need to keep Algebra II, because it is a course in the sequence that prepares students for higher learning at the college and university levels,” said Elizabeth Leybeck, a former math teacher who is assistant principal at Mesquite High School in Gilbert, to azfamily.com.

During discussion of House Bill 2278, in the House Education Committee on Feb. 1, Rich Nickel, CEO of Education Forward Arizona, said, “The bill creates inequities that the state has been working hard to eliminate over the past decade by lowering expectations and differentiating students and eliminating post-secondary options.”

“Our concern is that the bill could create tracks for students that could disproportionately impact students of color, students of low-income backgrounds and those who may be first in their family to have an aspiration to post-secondary” Nickel said.

“These lower-level expectations mean that our students would be less prepared for post-secondary education and the jobs of the future,” Nickel said. “This is important for Arizona’s economy too. As you all know, 7 out of 10 jobs in Arizona today require post-secondary education of some type, including high-value certificates, licenses, two- and four-year degrees.”

Nickel said that there is already in statute there is “a provision that allows students to use an alternative to Algebra II and have flexibility for their fourth year of math,” and if there is concern that more needs to be done that “the State Board of Education should take the lead on that analysis.”

Darcy Mentone with Vail School District said she supports what Nickel said, but “the practical reality of what this looks like though in our schools is very different.”

“Imagine you’re in middle school and you struggle with math. You go on to your freshman year and you fail your first semester of Algebra I. Well, we have a four-year math requirement, so no matter what you are taking math every single year,” Mentone said.

“You struggle with math, it’s already difficult for you and your second semester of your freshman year you have to take both your first semester of Algebra I over and second semester or likely what happens is you take second semester of Algebra I and then the next year you have to take Algebra I and Geometry because you have to pass all of those courses,” Mentone said.

“I’ve been saying to Rep. Udall for many years now that the four-year math requirement, I believe, is the greatest contributor to our student dropout rate in Arizona,” Mentone said.

 “If you are not adept at math from the very beginning, you trip and fall anywhere through the process, there is not an opportunity for you to catch back up because of the four-year math requirement,” Mentone said.

“The reality is I’d rather see them graduate from high school and start at a community college where they can take remedial classes and college algebra and still get that math requirement and then transfer to a four-year university,” Mentone said.

This bill, “we think will have a huge impact on graduation rates in the State of Arizona,” Mentone said.

What students say Legislators should know as they vote on education bills Chris-Kotterman-at-Advocacy-Day-by-Ethan-Schwager
Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for ASBA, speaks with school board members during Advocacy Day at the Arizona Capitol. Photo by Ethan Schwager/ ASBA

Janice Palmer with Helios Education Foundation said the organization opposes the bill and noted that right now the Arizona Board of Regents said only 46% of Arizona high school graduates go on to two-year or four-year college, down from 53% in 2019.

“We believe very strongly that the answer is not to limit student pathways. The student should be the driver of their future,” Palmer said. “We’re all being prepared for a career.”

Students can do that with the flexibility provided in current law, Palmer said.

“A course that can be comparable to Algebra II is computer science, career and technical education courses, economics, arts and science courses already that is in State Board rule that flexibility can be provided for Algebra II, but what is different about this is that we need to keep the rigor,” Palmer said.

‘Students may end up going into career right after high school. They may go straight into college. But if they don’t go straight into college, we are limiting the opportunities to go back to attain that associates degree or that university degree. It becomes harder to do. It becomes more expensive to do it,” Palmer said.

“We can’t hamstring students by limiting their options now and in the future,” Palmer said.

Catcher Baden with the Arizona State Board of Education said the organization has concerns with the bill.

“A good question to ask is why aren’t schools taking advantage of that flexibility. Is it because they don’t have the resources or supports from the state or guidance from the state on how to take advantage of that flexibility or is it because they struggle with the resources at the lower level to provide those kinds of options, and frankly maybe some of those schools don’t want to provide some of those options in very college-preparatory types of high schools who make sure they track their kids into college,” Baden said.

“These graduation requirements with the four years of math date back to the graduating Class of 2013. The year before that the graduation rate was 71%. This past year it was 78%,” Baden said. ‘The graduation rate has increased since we’ve had these new requirements.”

“We don’t want students to dropout, but we also think because it’s in board rule that fourth year of math is really important,” Baden said.

Baden said the State Board of Education has asked for resources and supports in their budget request to the Arizona Legislature to review and re-evaluate current graduation requirements in math, English, science and other areas and see if there are other flexibilities such as including career and technical education courses to help students meet those requirements.

‘We’re really just asking for the State Board of Education to be allowed to do that and don’t necessarily think the bill in it’s current form is structured to do that,” Baden said.

He noted that process may take up to eight months to implement as it did when graduation requirements were last overhauled in 2013.

Morgan Dick, a spokesperson for the Arizona Dept. of Education has concerns with the bill.

“The Arizona Department of Education is concerned about what reducing the current requirement for four years of math instruction could mean for a student’s eligibility to enter a post-secondary education,” Dick said in an interview with Capitol Media Services. “We also believe having multiple pathways beyond geometry will allow for greater success based on a more personalized learning trajectory.”

Legislators’ responses to the measure

Rep. Jennifer Pawlik and Rep. Daniel Hernandez said they were torn on the bill, because they could see both sides of the argument.

“I’m really struggling with this one. As a classroom teacher who taught for 17 years, everybody doesn’t follow the same path, but I feel like it’s a bigger issue than just one year’s test scores, it’s a bigger issue than just math,” Rep. Pawlik said.

“In Arizona, we have more than 2,000 classrooms without a qualified teacher. Does that impact how students are doing in math? Oh yes, it absolutely does,” Rep. Pawlik said. “It’s such a big problem and I’m not sure this is the way to fix it. Today, I’m a no.”

“I’m a little torn on this bill because I recognize that there need to be different options for students to get a high school diploma,” Rep. Hernandez said.

“I don’t know if this is the right solution, and I think the suggestion made today of crosswalking our standards might make a lot more sense. We have the ability to do that using existing rules, so I’m going to be a no for now,” Rep. Hernandez said.

“I think this bill is on the right track,” said Rep. Joel John as he voted for the bill.

Rep. Judy Schwiebert said “Add me to the list of people who are torn on this bill. I really see both sides. I have people in my family who have really struggled with math and almost not graduated because of that, and I think it would be good to have more alternatives for people, so for today I’m going to be an aye.”

House Education Chair Rep. Michelle Udall, who teaches math, said “I believe that every student is capable of completing Algebra II, but I also believe that not every student needs Algebra II and not every student is going to find relevance or purpose in learning Algebra II.”

“Whereas some of these classes that Rep. Fillmore is talking about here, every student can find relevance in personal finance and some of those. I think every student can find a math where they’re still going to learn the logic and numeracy and that math fluency through another math class that’s not Algebra II,” House Education Chair Udall said.

“I think that when we limit them and say if you’re going to college it has to be Algebra II or if you’re going to graduate from high school it has to be Algebra II, we’re limiting the ability of our students and we’re limiting their ability to find joy in math, and to find a math that they do like and that resonates with them and that they can engage with,”  House Education Chair Udall said as she voted for the bill.

What students say Legislators should know as they vote on education bills