Unexpected part of the equation

By Lee Rasizer, CCA Director of Media/Public Relations 

Like many concurrent enrollment students, Crystal Armas came to CCA wanting to save money and get a head start on core college courses.
   What she never envisioned was that less than two years later, she not only would be on a path to an associate degree – currently needing just seven more credits to finish, but already with a career choice and job in hand. And, with it all, comes a real opportunity to earn a master’s degree and teacher’s license with scholarship help from the University of Denver, too.
   That step-by-step process is designed to finish with Armas taking guaranteed future employment in a “high-need” Aurora Public Schools middle or high school.
   “It’s just incredible,” she said. “I feel like my life is at the top, and I can’t image if I’m able to actually finish this how much better my life will be.”
   Armas was identified in the Fall 2014 as a potential candidate for an exciting new program,  “Access in Mathematics for All (AMA),” whose goal is to take locally talented math students who hail from Aurora high schools and create pathways that eventually lead them to become secondary mathematics teachers in their old neighborhoods.
   Armas isn’t just taking advanced coursework, such as Calculus II this spring, she’s actually serving as a “secondary math teacher,” essentially a teacher’s aid at Hinkley High School. She has been working with freshmen and sophomores who aren’t necessarily headed down a math track.
   It hasn’t taken her long to see herself at a young age in many of those students.
   In the fifth grade, Armas received the lowest-possible score on statewide testing in math. She felt she was terrible at the subject.        But in sixth grade, two teachers helped her learn tips and tools that raised her from under proficient to advanced in just one year.
“I just started liking math,” she recalled.
    “It was a thing I was best at. I understood it. It was like a puzzle to me, and from then on, I just started trying to understand everything.”
   It took fastidious note taking and asking loads of questions to keep advancing to where she is now – in CCA Math Chair James Gray’s Calculus II class.
   And now, she’s the go-to person for other students.
   At Hinkley, she is one of three CCA students currently embedded within the lower-level math classes. Representatives from CCA and DU go to upper-tier math classes in an effort to recruit students to the AMA program.
Armas’ strategy in the high school is trying to provide encouragement for students to take notes and make an effort to study so that they can eventually make steady gains.
   “It reminds me of when I was in their shoes,” Armas explained. ”It’s different, because they want to give up right away. They’re like, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t want to try.’ But I know what it feels like not to understand math.
   “I try to motivate them. I try to give them tips that I would want to be able to understand. And I really like the opportunity because I feel like I can help them out. I already see some kids changing. They’re trying a little harder, focusing a little more. And even though I’ve only been there a short time, I see changes in student performance and the ability to want to learn.”
   Armas gets called into action at CCA by students who are flummoxed by calculus’ heady concepts that, at first, scared her, until she learned more techniques that allayed any concerns.
   "Some of my classmates had difficulty and would always ask me for help, and I started to see that I really enjoyed helping them, and they were able to understand,” she said. “It motivated me. I never got tired of helping.
   “And then James one day said to me that it really seemed like I enjoyed helping people and he brought up the idea of what I want my future career to be. He said, ‘Have you ever thought of being a math teacher?’ I hadn’t, but I started thinking about it and it was really something I do love doing. It makes me happy.”
   The AMA Fellows program was broached shortly thereafter.
   For Armas, the thought of attending a prestigious university like DU seemed like a pipe dream only months earlier, but is quickly becoming a reality.
   For DU, it’s a way to continue striving toward a more diverse student base.
   “For us,” said Rick Kitchen, a DU Mathematics professor and Kennedy Endowed Chair for Urban Education, “it’s an equity-social issue.”
Former CCA President Dr. Linda Bowman first broached the partnership between CCA and DU while she was employed at the Morgridge School of Education.
    It took about two years for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to issue a grant to get the program off the ground. Another huge step is expected soon.
   “I think we’re doing well. I think we’re off to a good start,” Kitchen said. “In August, we apply for scholarship funding in the range of $1.2 million, something like that, and most of that money will go to students to fund their teaching degree so they can get a teaching license at DU and a master’s degree. We’ve already signed an agreement with APS for those students to then get jobs as secondary math teachers, so they can be role models for other members of the community.”
    Armas, no doubt, is a role model already in her own home. Her mother’s education went no farther than high school. She didn’t know her father and was raised by a grandfather who worked in construction before recently passing away.
Alvaro Garcia, who Armas considered her father figure, got to see the strides she was making academically before his death.
   “He said he was really happy,” Armas remembered, wiping away tears. “I would stay up late to do homework and he’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re doing your homework again. ‘And he was like, ‘Your work is finally paying off. I’m really proud of you.’”
   One of the messages Armas heard frequently was not to get trapped in a profession she disliked, like many of her relatives. That seems unlikely, given her current track.
   The money CCA is receiving through the initial NSF grant is being used to pay for the supplemental instructors, release time for faculty who are actively recruiting in the high schools, and other activities – such as a recent math lecture held on the CentreTech campus.
“Success for us is being able to develop a pipeline,” Gray said.
“This is our first year trying to develop infrastructure for that. And we want to do this on a year-in, year-out basis.”
Another primary function CCA is serving within the program is bringing DU access to the greater Aurora service area, so finds like Armas are made possible.
   “I thought my life would be a lot like my family’s – working hard and not very successful,” she said.
    “Now, I feel like I can accomplish anything I really want. … I didn’t know I wanted to be a math teacher. But with the opportunity I have, I really want this bad.”

CUTLINE: Top, Crystal Armas demonstrates a Calculus problem during a Spring 2015 class; below, it's test time in Calculus II.

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