Bozeman High School remains a strong school by most measures, and its teachers hope to make it stronger as they carry out the new, more demanding Common Core curriculum.

New Principal Kevin Conwell said the “big-time focus” this year is on implementing Montana's new Common Core standards. Teachers in math and American studies explained recent classroom innovations on Tuesday to Bozeman School Board trustees during their annual lunch visit to the school.

The Common Core aims to spell out what students nationwide should learn at every grade, make classes more rigorous and in-depth, and get kids ready for 21st century careers and college.

“I'm really encouraged by how teachers have come together for Common Core implementation,” Superintendent Rob Watson said. “They're working really hard and seem to be headed in the right direction.”

“We're doing great,” Conwell said after the meeting. “A lot of work is being done to align to the new Common Core standards. These are great examples.”

Math teachers Eric Humberger, Jen Bowen and Mary Anne McMahon explained how algebra and geometry classes are changing to fit the Common Core.

“The Common Core is really asking us to get kids to think deeper,” Bowen said. That means on tests, students must give an answer and also defend it.

Math teachers are using tests and math skills programs bought from online companies to find students' weaknesses and help them get more skills practice, Humberger said. The math-tutoring lab is now open from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day to help students, McMahon said.

Math appears to be a weak area for Bozeman High students, according to the state's standardized CRT tests. In spring 2013, only 68 percent of Bozeman students scored at grade level or advanced on the math test, down from 74 percent the year before. In science, 64 percent did well.

Bozeman High students scored much higher on the CRT reading test — 92 percent were at grade level or advanced. Some 23 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

English teacher Beth Spangelo and history teacher Joe Kusak explained how starting this year, all juniors are required to take an American studies class, which combines teaching American history with American literature.

A class of 50 students meets for nearly two hours, which means it has time to visit museums or bring in speakers and performers – including Watson playing 1930s Woody Guthrie tunes on his banjo.

The Common Core, Kusak said, emphasizes students using evidence from texts and original documents to “make sense of history” themselves, instead of regurgitating from textbooks. Because of the analytical skills students are learning, when the new Common Core-related test is given next spring to all Montana students for the first time, Kusak said he's confident “our students are going to do incredibly well.”

Kusak said after last year's football championship loss to Butte, there were some “ugly stereotypes” going around the high school, so he used a Bozeman Schools Foundation grant to take 100 students to Butte to learn about the city's mining history and importance to Montana.

“I'm very impressed,” School Board Chair Wendy Tage said after the presentations. “I love the innovation, I love how they're putting a fresh spin on classes.”

Conwell presented statistics showing Bozeman High has 1,963 students this year. Last year's graduation rate was 86.5 percent.

Bozeman students continue to excel in college-level Advanced Placement classes, taking 872 national AP exams last spring and passing 86.3 percent of them.

Bozeman's average score on the ACT college-entrance exam was 22.5 last spring, the first time all juniors took the test, thanks to a state program. That was a drop from a 23.8 ACT score the year before, when 60 percent took the test.

About a quarter take the SAT test, and Bozeman's average scores were 591 on reading, 590 on math and 563 on writing.

In 2012, some 64 percent of Bozeman High grads went to college. Counting those who took a gap year off, 79 percent attended college within two years of graduation. Montana State University was by far Bozeman students' No. 1 choice.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.