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Club Subtracts Fear from Math

Diamond Sparkman softly counts aloud as she measures the sides of a polygon displayed on a computer screen, trying to determine its area. “Seven times seven is 49,” she says, writing the equation on paper. Then she’s stuck.

“Miss Kanoza, I need help,” Diamond calls to teacher Denise Kanoza, adviser to this after-school math club at Riverside Middle School. Step by step, Kanoza helps the eighth-grader through the equation — “Remember, we multiplied the top and divided it by two … then we have to add them … remember we did that, so we’ve got to do this” – until Diamond has the answer.

“I want to try the next one,” she says quietly, and moves on to a triangle.

This is Math Acceleration Club, a grant-funded pilot program to help middle-school students get ready for high-school algebra. Now in its third year, the MAC works with students at risk of doing poorly, in twice-weekly study sessions at Riverside, Alger and Burton middle schools, Sherwood Park Global Studies Academy and C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy.

The program marshals an array of resources to help students get up to speed: after-school clubs of up to 10 students per grade, aided by a teacher; online programs from Khan Academy that break down math mysteries with videos and narrated demonstrations; and Kindles for students to work on at home, along with T-shirts, outings and incentive prizes, funded by the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation.

“It teaches you hands-on work,” says Diamond, explaining the videos “break it down into pieces” for her. Though her grades have improved since sixth grade, she says, math class can still be tough.

“Sometimes I struggle because I don’t know what to do,” admits Diamond, who hopes to become a doctor. “When I get to Math Club, I can easily do it on the computer.”

Seventh-grader Devon McKenzie says math club has helped him figure fractions, adding, “I’m working my way up the ladder”
Seventh-grader Devon McKenzie says math club has helped him figure fractions, adding, “I’m working my way up the ladder”

A Social Way to Attack Math

The MAC initiative aims to provide a kind of early-warning strategy for a key indicator of student success. Eighth-grade math proficiency is considered a reliable predictor of high-school graduation and college enrollment. However, just 35 percent of West Michigan eighth-graders scored proficient last year on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP), according to Talent 2025, a 13-county business consortium promoting career preparation.

Since 2013-14, students considered at risk of failing high-school algebra have been referred to the program. They and their parents sign a contract agreeing the student will put in at least five hours a week working the online programs of Khan Academy, which track students’ progress in a broad range of math skills. They are given Kindle tablets to use at home, and get to keep them if they make it into algebra class.

At Riverside, students meet after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays in a computer lab, working individually or in small groups. They are expected to attend at least one session a week. Students’ math scores have gone up, and one eighth-grader is now taking geometry online, said Principal Donna Boman.

“For the students who have stuck with it, we’re supporting and fostering a love of math,” Boman said. “It’s a social way to attack math.”

Kanoza, a reading teacher who serves as club adviser, says it helps students work independently and gain confidence.

“Instead of always giving them the answers, they’re able to figure (problems) out on their own through the program,” Kanoza said, adding she’ll help if they’re “absolutely stuck.”

“They’re starting to get those ‘aha’ moments: ‘I know how to do this now.’ Math is not such a mystery and a fear to them.”

Eighth-grader Jaquaveon Pierson said the math club has upped his test scores, helped him count money and figure out equations. He figures those will be useful skills for his career goal of becoming an architect.

“It makes me be successful in life, eager to do something I love,” he said.


Khan Academy

Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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