Math Is Life: Teaching and Learning Math at SJND | Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School


Math Is Life: Teaching and Learning Math at SJND

Sean Rhatigan, formerly a courtroom lawyer, has taught at SJND for six years. He teaches AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC, in addition to Honors Algebra 2 and Trigonometry. He has his undergraduate degree from Stanford, an MBA from Cal and his law degree from Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley.

SJND students embrace a challenge. The SJND math department provides that challenge in the form of college preparatory math classes with a math curriculum culminating in college-level, Advanced Placement classes in calculus and statistics. We expect our students to attend college, and we expect many of them to continue to study math, science, engineering and other related fields. We want them to be prepared to succeed in those fields of study, and our math teachers and students work very hard to ensure that success.

 We have come a long way in the past six years. During my first year at SJND, 13 students took AP Calculus. Candidly, the students’ expectations for the class were modest. Many of the students were not confident in their ability or in the preparation they had received. Over the past six years, we have been able to build our students’ confidence and expectations. Last year, 23 students took AP Calculus exams, and 21 of those students passed the exam, with an average score just under 4.

This year, 41 students are taking AP Calculus classes and 15 more students are taking our new AP Statistics class—an increase of more than 400 percent since 2008. Nearly 50 percent of seniors are taking an AP math class.

Many different factors contribute to this growing interest and success in advanced math classes. Members of the math department welcome students before school, at lunch and after school, meeting to talk about math, homework or exams. We’re more than glad to meet with students in classes other than our own, and we collaborate well as a faculty to coordinate curriculum and identify students’ individual needs, including those who need a bigger challenge. Student surveys consistently show that math classes are among the most popular classes at SJND, and 98 percent of our students take the equivalent of four or more years of math at SJND, with very few students discontinuing their studies after meeting the minimum math requirements.

SJND attracts excellent students from a wide range of middle schools. About half of our students begin their high school math careers in either Algebra 2 Trigonometry or Geometry, which sets them up to take AP Calculus as juniors or seniors. For students who start in Algebra 1, we provide opportunities to accelerate by studying Geometry, or occasionally Pre-Calculus, in an intensive summer course. We know our students and their abilities well, and we are flexible enough to recognize when a student is ready to take on a bigger challenge.

We are enthusiastic about teaching math, and we convey that enthusiasm to our students. After all, math is life. We work very hard to explain the relationship between the seemingly abstract concepts of math and the physical and financial realities of the world. Exponential and logarithmic concepts underlie population concepts in biology, as well as rates of return in banking and investments. Rate of change and accumulation of change, the fundamental concepts addressed by calculus, are everywhere—from rates of decay of radioactive material to inventory control programs for retailers and speedometer and odometer readings on cars.

SJND and the Math Department continue to build on the success our students have enjoyed during recent years. We are considering adding a one-semester class in Trigonometry to supplement the material covered in our Honors Algebra 2 Trigonometry and Honors Pre-Calculus classes. We have also discussed introducing an AP Calculus class paced to cover material from both the AB and BC curriculums in one year.

We are proud of the accomplishments of our students. We continue to work hard developing our course offerings, providing challenges for our students that will prepare them well for success in their college careers.