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College credit, in 8th-grade

A computer course gives a Van Buren Middle School student a shot at credit from Stanford.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


TAMPA -- With an intensity like the Florida sun at high noon, Ibsen Morales attacked the algebra problem entangled in an alphabet-soup of variables.

He scratched at a pad of paper and with the click of a mouse sent an answer into a computer's circuitry, which confirmed seconds later that the answer was correct.

For the Van Buren Middle School eighth-grader, the right answer meant he was one step closer to earning college credit from Stanford University.

Yes, the one in Northern California.

Ibsen is among several dozen Tampa students taking part in a pioneering math program -- one in which a computer does the teaching while teachers oversee and offer one-on-one guidance. Students who finish the 107 lessons in the algebra course may, as part of a deal worked out between the software manufacturer and Stanford, advance to the college-level algebra course.

Not many do.

Ibsen was the first to do it in Tampa.

"I just understand math very well," said the bespectacled, soft-spoken 13-year-old, who began the college course Tuesday.

In Tampa, six other schools have been outfitted with the math software and needed computer gadgetry, at a cost of $300,000 per classroom, paid for with federal money. Next year, more Hillsborough County schools are expected to take part in the program.

The program is also being piloted in New Jersey and Louisiana.

While it is cutting-edge now, the program is likely to be among dozens used by Hillsborough students in coming years as the school district prepares to make a major financial investment in technology, with a focus on putting more computers in schools.

For Frank Porter, Ibsen's math teacher at Van Buren, the computers mean less time at the chalkboard and a chance for his students to advance at their own pace.

"I've seen at least a one- or two-grade improvement in my kids," said the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

Ibsen is the exception; he's always been an A-student.

Still, the program has allowed him to go further in his math studies and faster than he could before, even in gifted classes.

The son of an auto mechanic and mental health worker, Ibsen said he always been drawn to math.

"In literature, the answer could be many things," said Ibsen, who is named after the famed playwright. "But in math, there is always one right answer."

A native of the Dominican Republic, he moved to New York when he was 8 months old. By the time he was 3, his mother saw signs of precociousness.

"His grandfather had a lot of books and he was always pointing at the letters and he wanted to know what the letters were," said his mother, Ana Nunez.

Ibsen was reading by kindergarten, but only in Spanish. He learned English in school.

In 1995, the family moved to Tampa, where his budding math skills blossomed with the encouragement of teachers and some long-distance homework help from his New York-based grandfather, a retired math and science teacher.

Today, Ibsen finds his mind drifting, in spare moments, to tangled math hypotheticals. "I like to think about motion a lot," he said bashfully, as though he wished his musings were about the latest Simpsons episode.

Ibsen plans to study engineering next year at Tampa Bay Technical High School. Architecture, he said, is a possible career goal.

College is too far off to have top choices yet, he said. His mother is none too keen about his studies continuing on the Stanford campus.

"I'm too attached to him," she said. "But whatever is best for him is what we will do."

In the meantime, Ibsen is focused on earning his college credit, but not too quickly.

"I try to go fast, but not too fast," he said. "Because then you could mess up."

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