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Contextual math class for high school seniors looks to improve college success

Written by
Stephen Mease

May 18, 2022


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We know that math skills are a prerequisite for college and career success, but Vermont’s high school students are struggling to gain proficiency. A new course is taking a different approach to solidifying important math concepts for high school seniors who may have struggled with traditional math classes. This summer, teachers will have a chance to learn more about that course in a professional development workshop.

John “JP” Painter, Math Curriculum Area Supervisor at South Burlington High School, has been teaching Essential Math for College and Careers, or “EMC2,” for the last two years. “It’s about trying to increase the relevance of math for students,” he explains. 

The course uses an approach called inquiry-based teaching, which VSAC GEAR UP Academic Support Coordinator Anita Long defines this way: “There’s a contextual question that you’re trying to answer, and you’re using math to get there, rather than learning math for its own sake.”

Long says that many high school students who have technically passed Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II aren’t comfortable enough with the concepts to be able to apply them in college-level courses or in the working world.

Even before the pandemic, standardized testing showed that Vermont’s 11th graders were less than 40% proficient in math, and the scores were even worse for low-income students. And proficiency has likely slipped further during pandemic learning. According to a recent Harvard University study, even students who attended in-person school for most of COVID lost about 20 percent of a typical school year’s math learning during the last two years.

That lack of proficiency is a proven barrier to college success. According to Painter, “Research shows that if students go to college and have to take remedial math, there’s a high percentage that don’t graduate.” Long adds that, for many other students, the prospect of having to take remedial math might be enough for them to say, “I won’t go to college at all.”

Painter thinks EMC2 can help change that. “What I like about this course is that it’s all about connecting students to success in college. That makes a lot of sense for me.”

Putting math in context

The course, developed with input from the Vermont State College System, the Vermont Agency of Education and VSAC’s GEAR UP program, revisits essential concepts and skills from Numbers and Operations, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, and Data and Statistics, and presents them through hands-on problem-solving.

As an example, Long offers an inquiry-based math problem that students were recently given. “When the Apple Store was coming up on selling its one-millionth app, they posted a counter on their site and offered a gift card to anyone who could guess when that would happen. It’s a non-linear problem because the pace of downloads increased as advertising became more widespread. Students also have to factor in details like leap years,” she noted.

The class also receives good reviews from students. 

South Burlington senior Yousef Gharib, who is headed to VTC in the fall to study aviation, signed up for EMC2 because he wanted to be better prepared for college.

“The essentials of the content are the same, but it’s the way the teacher is teaching the class that makes a difference. People ask a lot of questions,” he says, noting that there is a high level of engagement and enthusiasm, despite the fact that it’s during first period.    

Brooke Hamilton, also a senior at South Burlington High School, says that “This course made math easier because you get to see the full story. In other math classes, it was ‘here’s an equation, do it’, but in this class, it’s about how math actually applies to life.”

Hamilton, who plans to study early child care and education at CCV, recounts some memorable problems she and her classmates were asked to solve. “How much would a baby weigh if it grew at the same rate after it was born as it does in the womb? Or how far could a human jump if it could jump as far as a flea can, relative to its size? For both of those, we were given a story that we turned into a math equation.”

Students who successfully complete EMC2 are automatically qualified to enroll in credit-bearing college math courses at any Vermont State College school – which takes the specter of remedial math out of the equation.

And Painter says he sees a noticeable confidence boost among his EMC2 students. “After they finish the course, there’s definitely a mindset shift. They don’t see math as something they can’t do. Or something ‘extra’ that doesn’t connect with other learning that they’ve done. They start to see themselves as mathematical thinkers.”

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Register now for EMC2 teacher workshop

Currently, EMC2 is offered at seven high schools in Vermont, and it is also available to any Vermont high school student through the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC).

Teachers who are interested in offering EMC2 at their school – or who want to learn more about inquiry-based practices that they can apply to algebra, financial literacy, and many other courses – are encouraged to sign up for a professional development workshop. The workshop will be offered in person at VTC in Randolph, July 25-29, and registration is open now.

For information on college and career planning and help with financial aid, go to and check out our online workshops and events. You can also give us a call at 800-642-3177, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and online at