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Eighth grade math teacher Israel Del Valle slapped a $100 bill on a whiteboard, securing it in place underneath a magnet.

The nine students spaced out in the Matthey Middle School classroom on San Antonio’s South Side sat up a little straighter, eager to win that money by answering an impossible question: Where is the percent sign located on their graphing calculators? Del Valle knew he wouldn’t lose $100 that Wednesday morning.

But it wouldn’t have been the first time Del Valle lost money to a student, and it may not be the last. The 2021 Southside Independent School District Teacher of the Year is offering his students $1,000 if they make a perfect score on the eighth grade math state standardized test, part of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

A note on Del Valle’s whiteboard that morning alerted students that 18 school days stood between them and the STAAR. Every day counts for Del Valle and his co-teacher, Amanda Wilson, who spent the first nine weeks of school teaching every student virtually. Students began returning to the classroom in December, and while not all are back in person – 43% are still virtual – the ones who are have shown tremendous growth, Del Valle said.

The general consensus from Del Valle, Wilson, and their students is that virtual learning didn’t really work for them. Wilson said without being able to form connections with students in person, engaging them via videoconference on Zoom was difficult. Some students couldn’t focus because of other distractions, like chores or siblings, and others simply did not sign on, Del Valle said.

“Since I have two little brothers, we were all together in the same room, or one would be in the kitchen and the others were in the living room, but it’s so close,” eighth grader Sophia Sanchez said.

The Texas Education Agency estimates that students have lost more than five months of learning since March 2020, although that estimate is conservative by the agency’s standards. The actual learning time students have lost is likely closer to a year.

The eighth graders at Matthey, 86% of whom are considered economically disadvantaged, will take the math STAAR Tuesday, almost a month later than the state standardized tests would have been administered in a normal school year. The tests will help measure students’ academic progress during the pandemic. After canceling standardized exams last year, state and federal officials have mandated students take the tests this year, despite widespread outrage from superintendents, politicians, and education advocates. They believe forcing students to show up in person to take the tests creates more potential for exposure to COVID-19 and that teachers can assess students without the exams.

Students flood the hallways of Matthey Middle School in between periods. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In Del Valle’s classroom, the students scanned their calculators for a button that wasn’t there. Wilson walked around the classroom and encouraged students to complete the 25-second challenge. “Do you know how many cheeseburgers you can buy with $100?” she asked.

The 25 seconds passed, and no one had located the percent sign on the calculator. Del Valle told them it does not exist and that they have to convert percentages to whole numbers to solve the equation. Sighs and groans erupted from the students. He reminded them to move the decimal point to the left two times to convert a percent into a whole number.

“Who’s your best friend in eighth grade?” Del Valle asked the room.

“Decimals!” the students responded.

The tactics Del Valle and Wilson have been using as more and more students have returned to the classroom from virtual learning center on an instructional model known as the gradual release of responsibility, Matthey Principal Miguel Martell said. The teaching framework gradually shifts the responsibility for performing a task from teachers to students, with students helping each other understand the task or concept along the way, according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a nonprofit education organization.

That is what Del Valle and Wilson were doing when they showed the class how to solve an algebra equation with variables on both sides of the equation. The class first watched a video, demonstrating how to solve the equation. Then Wilson broke down each step in solving the equation on the whiteboard, while Del Valle walked around the classroom and helped individual students. As Wilson talked the class through the problem, she engaged students by asking them why they were doing each step, pausing to answer any questions.

Del Valle and Wilson have gone to great lengths to get students to pay attention and do their work. They use silly accents or props while teaching. They joke with one another and the students. When students answer questions correctly or read a passage out loud, they toss them a Jolly Rancher. They can’t do those things virtually.

“It’s harder to get that level of engagement, especially if I’m staring at a black screen,” Wilson said.

Amanda Wilson, a mathematics co-teacher, works through an equation with students. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Jesus Lozada, another one of Del Valle’s students, said he often made excuses not to attend virtual classes just because he could. No one was making sure he was participating until one of his teachers called his parents. They made him return to school in person in January.

“I didn’t like it,” Jesus said of remote instruction. “There were no rules. You could just be in class with no restrictions.”

Sophia said she didn’t like virtual classes because it felt like school didn’t matter. No one was motivating her to do her work. She would distract herself with her cellphone instead of paying attention to class.

Both Jesus and Sophia prefer going to school in person because their teachers are there to encourage them and it’s easier to ask them questions. They also enjoy the way Del Valle teaches and listens to them. They like that he jokes around but also knows what to say to help them understand what he’s teaching. They feel confident about the material they have learned since they returned to the classroom and are ready to take the STAAR.

The switch back to in-person instruction has led to improved grades for both students. Jesus was failing Del Valle’s class before he returned because he was not logging onto his classes. Now, he’s making perfect scores on the weekly quizzes Del Valle administers. Sophia was getting 60s and 70s on her virtual work, but now she’s also achieving perfect scores on tests. She did so well on a test she earned $100 from Del Valle, which she spent purchasing souvenirs in Mexico.

Sophia Sanchez, 14, plays the clarinet in a practice room. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Jesus said the fact that Del Valle uses money to motivate students feels like “he’s investing in us.”

“He trusts us,” he said. “I’m flattered that a teacher could feel that way. You always think of a teacher as a grumpy old man or a grumpy old woman. He’s grumpy, but he gets to our level, as well.”

The money Del Valle has been handing out to students is his way of paying forward the $3,000 he won when Southside ISD named him Teacher of the Year. That’s why he is offering $1,000 to his 116 students if they make a perfect score on the math STAAR. He told his students, “If you can prove that I’m Teacher of the Year, I’ll give that money back to you.”

Eight students could possibly do it, Del Valle said. If they ace the exam, he joked that he might have to get a loan, even though he already has a second job working as a baggage handler at the airport.

But the STAAR is just the first hurdle for these students. After the standardized tests, Del Valle and Wilson will pivot to reviewing the fundamentals of algebra that these eighth graders will start next school year. That work is just as important for students’ futures as building up the seventh grade-math skills students missed last school year.

“Our STAAR test is usually the first week of April, and it got pushed back to mid-May,” Del Valle said. “That basically gave us almost a month of extra instruction, which let us catch some of those kids up and then more importantly, really hone in on the eighth grade skills that they’re going to be using next year.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.