Face-to-face with an intimidating stack of paper, Palo Alto High School freshman Kavita Fulton pulls out a pencil to start her geometry proofs. The past few days have been full of rigor as she prepares for her test. But, Fulton said she knows she’ll be ready. With pencil in hand, eraser to the side and a cup of chai on the table, Fulton digs in.

Fulton is one of many students who has benefited from the Palo Alto Unified School District’s 2019 decision to eliminate middle school math lanes, called Reimagining Math, which took effect during the 2020-2021 school year.

The change has led to an increased number of students in advanced math classes and better performance among the Paly graduating class of 2027, the first class of students since Reimagining Math was implemented.

According to former PAUSD School Board President and current Board Member Jennifer DiBrienza, the change has been successful in both encouraging students to challenge themselves in higher-level math courses as well as boosting their academic performance.

With the first 2023 fall quarter grades being released, the school board was given baseline information as to whether taking away middle school math lanes has been successful.

“Across the board, kids were more successful in the classes they were in and more of them are in an advanced class,” Dibrienza said. “So on the whole our ninth-grade class is doing better than past ninth-grade classes. They’re in more advanced classes and they’re doing better in them.”

Before the change, PAUSD middle school students were given the choice to choose their math lane starting in the seventh grade. Students either selected the advanced lane, going on to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, or the regular lane, taking Algebra 1 in ninth grade. However, after the change, all middle school students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade.

According to DiBrienza, the choice of a math lane difficulty level had long been a problem and was one of the main reasons the school board decided to eliminate math lanes, as a student’s math lane affected their self-esteem levels.

“Separating kids in seventh grade made some kids just think a certain way about themselves as a mathematician,” DiBrienza said. “If they weren’t in 7A or 8A [the advanced lane], they thought they weren’t good at math.”

Students not in the advanced math lane are also restricted from taking certain classes in other areas. To take Advanced Placement Physics C, students must be enrolled in at least AP Calculus AB. To take Physics H in junior year, students are strongly encouraged to be enrolled in at least Introduction to Analysis and Calculus. Students in the lower math lanes can only take these classes if they enroll in summer school.

Additionally, the question of equity came into play when considering the demographic of students taking the lower middle school math lanes.

“The seventh and eighth lane [regular lane] was fine for some kids,” DiBrienza said. “But it was disproportionately filled with our historically underrepresented kids like our Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, or low income [students].”

Along with the elimination of math lanes, the middle school math curriculum across all three grade levels was adjusted, making the jump to advanced math more feasible for students.

Daniel Nguyen, an AP Statistics and IAC teacher who has been teaching at Paly for eight years, said that he understands why the change was made, but feels it may harm students who do not learn at a quicker pace.

“Students learn at different paces and if we push students too fast, they might become discouraged, they might lose confidence that they’ve built up over time,” Nguyen said. “So it’s a very difficult situation but I know that the Reimagining Math program has caused a lot of kids to have to retake math.”

A Paly freshman, who opted to repeat Algebra 1 and not have his name published in Verde, athat he would have preferred the option for a slower-paced math lane in middle school.

“It [middle school math] was too hard,” he said. “I think they should not have made the lanes higher.”

However, Fulton said transitioning from Algebra 1 in eighth grade to regular Geometry in ninth grade was not a surprising leap for her, as she felt adequately prepared for the algebra that is part of the geometry curriculum.

“I think they did a good job teaching algebra that we needed in high school,” Fulton said. “It was just right … We use some algebra in Geometry so the [middle school] curriculum was taught at a good pace in a way I understood.”

Additionally, Fulton felt middle school math lanes are not needed because students have resources to accelerate their math learning if needed.

“Some people did go to geometry in eighth grade, but only because they took a test,” Fulton said. “I think if you know you’re that at the level that you are [in math], then you’ll be fine in a harder class. It was good the way they had you take a test if you wanted to lane up.”

Despite the mixed feelings among students and teachers, DiBrienza said she believes that Reimagining Math has made a clear positive impact on students and wants to continue perfecting the new math curriculum.

“It doesn’t mean there’s not kinks to work out, or it’s perfect or anything,” Dibrienza said. “But so far, it seems to have made a real positive impact.”