6th-8th Grade Algebra I and Geometry, Pueblo Del Sol Elementary School Phoenix, AZ
When students leave Jason Catanese’s class at the end of the school year, it’s not goodbye—it’s see you soon.
“I tell my students that once I’m your teacher, I’m not just your teacher for the year that I have you,” Catanese says. “I’m your teacher for life.”
That’s because Mr. Catanese, a two-time Fishman Prize finalist, isn’t satisfied just helping his middle school students succeed at high school-level math, he wants to build a community of future science, technology, and engineering professionals who can use math and critical thinking to lift up this entire Phoenix-area neighborhood full of immigrants—and soon-to-be first generation college students.
“What you’re seeing is not just the work of one person, it’s really the work of the whole community,” he says. “It’s about building a community of kids and parents that will outlast a teacher.”
Mr. Catanese and his students understand that math is a high-stakes subject—the single greatest predictor of their future opportunities in the fields of science and technology. Yet to help his middle schoolers understand quadratics, Catanese has to go far beyond worksheets or rote memorization—he has to connect math concepts to the needs students see in their community, like engineering a wheelchair ramp to help their friends get around.
“It makes everything more urgent,” he says of the service-oriented mission of his classroom. “We see problems in our community and we use our math to solve them.”
“This approach has been a game-changer for students,” says Principal Armando Chavez. “Not only has this teacher provided students with a positive mentor, he is providing a level of instruction that is preparing students for high school, college, and a career. Our high schools are having to adapt what classes they offer because so many of our students are arriving with math credits even before setting foot on a high school campus.”
Five hundred and eighty-five middle schoolers have taken algebra and geometry with Catanese over the last five years, making his class the largest and most successful of the 86 middle school math programs in the Phoenix area. Seventy-six percent of his students have received a high school algebra credit and 30 percent have received both algebra and geometry credits—even though in a typical school year, only about a quarter of students enter his class on grade level. From 2014-2016, 10 percent of the city’s middle school students who earned high school math credits came from Catanese’s classroom.
Those alumni return to Mr. Catanese’s class to talk about their high school experiences, offer tutoring, or give presentations. Catanese even organized a college camp to give more than 150 of his former students the opportunity to experience higher education up close, staying on campus to experience the life of a college student firsthand.
“There are some people who wonder if my students should even be doing algebra,” Catanese says. “They have shown people, we’re not only going to do it, but we’re going to help people along the way.”