Math is One of Many Stars at Walter Payton Prep

Ellen Ullman

Math teams and contests, exciting electives, collaborative problem solving, and a culture of experimentation and exploration make this Chicago Magnet School a very special place.

When Walter Payton College Preparatory School (Payton Prep) was recognized by Intel as the top winner (“Star Innovator”) in its 2010 Schools of Distinction program, this magnet school within the Chicago Public Schools was celebrating its tenth birthday. Since then, the school’s award-winning reputation in math, science, world languages, humanities, fine arts, and adventure education has continued to grow. Teachers collaborate to deliver cross-curricular lessons that are engaging, authentic, and relevant, and they work hard to integrate technology—when appropriate—to continually elevate their instruction.

Because the founding teachers and administrators had the freedom to put their stamp on the school, they experimented with scheduling, settling on a block schedule. On every other Wednesday, students participate in Payton Prep’s Seminar Program. They take two seminars in whatever they choose, such as improvisational comedy, Pilates, math modeling, and acoustic guitar. Payton Prep is the only high school in the United States to house a Confucius Institute, designed to support the growth of the school’s Mandarin Chinese language program.

The school has enrichment time for 45 minutes at the end of each day for students to attend a club meeting, sports practice, or tutoring session. “Teachers can experiment during enrichment with lessons that aren’t ready for prime time and figure out how to improve them,” says Paul (P.J.) Karafiol, coordinator for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Karafoil says his school got the idea for enrichment by talking with Thomas Jefferson High School about its schedule during the Intel Schools of Distinction Awards in 2010.

BYOD Supplements School-Owned Technology

From almost the beginning, Payton Prep was using laptop carts. Today, there are two dedicated tech labs, computers in the library, and several laptop carts. Approximately 30 percent of the students bring their own devices to school and the rest can grab a loaner device whenever they need. “We use technology as a lens,” says Karafiol. “We’re strategic about our purchases. Teachers use technology to boost learning and engage students; they aren’t just finding a use for it.”

“We strive to offer a rich immersion in technology, like we would with a language,” says Ty Mulroy, technology coordinator. “And we’re not limiting this immersion experience to just students—we’re looking to achieve a community with high-tech fluency for staff as well.”

According to Karafiol, the school has chosen “not to adopt iPads—or any other new technology—until we have a clear vision on how we would implement that technology to improve student learning.” In the meantime, teachers encourage students to BYOD for classroom productivity, such as looking up words. A 1:1 initiative is being discussed, and would most likely involve Chromebooks, but the committee must first decide if and how one-to-one will help students learn better.

Integrate Technology and Assessing Students

The English department uses Moodle to post their calendars and homework and other resources. Many of them also use Google Apps extensively. Kerry Catlin, chair of the English department, uses Moodle to host classroom blogs; for instance, she’ll ask students to blog about their reaction to an assigned reading. “Blogging is a different style of writing, and an integral piece to how we run our classroom,” she explains.

Catlin has also been using Moodle to help her students develop digital portfolios, which she believes helps them grow as writers, take pride in their work, and have something to show colleges and/or future employers. The portfolios also enable teachers to be able to check their student’s overall writing progress. “Moodle’s portfolio plug-in lets students add images and reflect on their writing,” she says, “making it a meaningful representation of their work.”

The English teachers have long used Turnitin to check for plagiarism, but nowadays students use it to evaluate their originality. Catlin likes using the site to grade papers online and for its new peer-review feature, which she says has revolutionized how she handles peer editing and peer review in her writing classes.

Patyon Prep’s world language teachers rely on Duolingo; Google Docs for peer editing, blogging, and “flipping” the classroom; and eyeVocab, which lets them use visuals to teach vocabulary. “We are focused on input and how it helps students produce language,” says Alicia Gonzalez, department chair of world languages. World language students have used Photo Story and Storyjumper to create storybooks for the last few years and will be using Glogster EDU to create interactive posters this year. Recently, some French students used GoAnimate for the first time, which she says resulted in some of the best projects she’s ever seen.

Gonzalez loves that her students are invested in their learning and believes that the technology really helps them to speak the language they are studying. “Gone are the days of sitting in the hallway and interviewing students one at a time,” she says. “We’re very fortunate to have a language lab with language software that lets us do oral testing all at once. It’s life changing.”

An Award-Winning Math Department

“In my 12 years here, I’ve seen our use of technology evolve because of how it helps us improve student learning,” says Scott Galson, chair of the math department. In the early days, students used Geometer’s Sketchpad, Wolfram Mathematica, and first-generation TI-80 calculators. Today, every teacher has a tablet PC and a projector, and students use the latest TI calculators. Teachers project student work and post assignments and lessons on Moodle for students to watch if they miss class or review for comprehension.

Math students use Google Apps to collaborate on papers and math modeling solutions to everyday problems, such as where bicycles should be placed around Chicago. In the 3D modeling/printing seminar, students lead the class in building 3D models and solving problems using Google SketchUp. “The students love it!” says Galson. “They do measurements and print out their solutions. We also run advanced Geometer’s Sketchpad and Mathematica seminars.”

Galson appreciates how technology helps everyone communicate quickly and efficiently. Thanks to Google Apps and Moodle, students always know the time, date, and location of math events, and that access to information is crucial. A number of math teachers use Camtasia on their school-provided laptops to do sample problems and record voice and pen strokes. Sometimes they use these videos to flip their classrooms.

Payton Prep is known for its extremely successful Math Team, which competes in the City of Chicago Math League (Payton Prep is in the top division), Illinois Mathematics League (Payton Prep has been state champion for the last few years), North Suburban Math League, and the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics competitions. Each year, a few students compete in the American Regions Mathematics League, a regional all-star team that includes students from Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. Galson says that the competitions build resilience. He’s happy that more and more students are entering these challenges and having fun doing something that isn’t related to a grade.

Spreading the Wealth

The school is also proud of the ways in which it is supporting math education throughout the city of Chicago. Together with other leading STEM schools from the area, Payton participated in an Intel ISEF Educator Academy three years ago and helped to launch Chicago’s first-ever youth math research symposium, known as QED. This past year, over 100 students in grades 5-12 submitted projects at QED, receiving recognition and prizes from a range of mathematical sponsors.

The Payton Citywide Math Circle, supported by the Intel Foundation, gives Chicago sixth- through 12th-graders the opportunity to learn new and interesting math without the pressures of assessments, grades, or competition. The sessions are taught by high school and university math teachers from around Chicago and are held monthly at Payton. Attendees solve problems on topics like combinatorial logic and game theory. “Math Circle is another way we try to get more students in Chicago to do fun and challenging math,” says Galson.

Last but not least is the Grade School Math Club, in which a handful of Payton Prep students go to five nearby K-8 schools to run math clubs for students in grades 6-8. They prepare lessons and problems on seminar days and then execute the lessons the following week.

Professional Learning Is Collaborative

Teachers’ courses are aligned so they can spend time comparing assessments, and planning lessons. Many of them take outside classes and belong to professional affiliations. “My colleagues and I recently developed quarterly benchmarks on Google Docs, and it’s amazing to access that,” says Gonzalez. She shares her GoAnimate projects with her colleagues and gets lots of helpful ideas from her team. “Whenever teachers sees something new they want to try, they come to me. It’s wonderful.”

Karafiol says that teachers collaborate vertically in subject teams as well as horizontally across courses. “Our faculty is incredibly energetic and reflective. We do lots of development, talking about practices and techniques, continually assessing where we’re at. We’re looking to continuously improve, and that’s really everyone’s goal; everything we do bubbles up from what the whole faculty says during professional development and at other venues.”

At A Glance

Walter Payton College Prep ( is a selective enrollment public high school and an international model for global teaching and learning in downtown Chicago.

The school is known for its world-class math, science, world language, humanities, fine arts, and adventure education programs.

Among its many accolades:

  • 2014 and 2008 National Blue Ribbon Award
  • U.S. News and World Report’s Top 100 High Schools (’07-’14)
  • Newsweek Top 50 High Schools
  • 2006 Goldman-Sachs Foundation Prize in Excellence in International Education
  • #1 International High School in the United States
  • Intel School of Distinction 2010 Star Innovator winner
  • College attendance rate of 98%
  • 89% of all students earn an AP exam score of 3 or higher
  • 11 National Merit and 1 National Achievement Semi-Finalists (Class of 2014)
  • #1 high school in IL, ranked by Chicago Sun-Times


The building has wireless access and every teacher has a Lenovo Tablet PC (various models) and an Epson MP wireless projector. Approximately 30% of the students bring their own devices to school. Students can also borrow Dell or HP laptops from laptop carts, as needed.

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Walter Payton College Prep

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Payton Math Circle

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