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Technology makes math fun in Osborn program

Every Tuesday and Thursday at the Matrix Center in Osborn, a group of elementary-aged kids pull on mesh jerseys, enter the arena, and get ready to start playing.

There are no balls or nets in this game, no hoops or gym shoes. The coach is actually a teacher. And the rules of the game are addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

It’s the Osborn Math Accelerator, an after-school youth development program that does something often deemed impossible – it makes math fun and motivating, and it gets results.

The program began as a Foundation-funded pilot last year, and the early results were so impressive, it was recently awarded another grant through our youth development RFP. The latest grant will help to expand the program and add a similarly modeled Reading Accelerator in the spring.

Here’s how it works: The second-, third-, and fourth-graders in the program, who either live or learn in the Osborn neighborhood, are assessed at the beginning of the program to see where they’re at on a variety of math competencies. That data is entered then into a Learning Management System, to which each kid receives a specialized log-in. The program is then tailored to exactly where each kid is on every competency and tracks students as they progress.

Twice a week, the 30 kids gather at Matrix, sit at a laptop, pull on headphones and watch a virtual math lesson being taught live by a teacher. After the lesson, they get to work solving problems. The teachers – who are sometimes just live-teaching from a room down the hall – can watch through the software as they kids attempt to solve problems.

“The kids love the technology,” said Maggie Durant, the program director. “It makes it so easy for them, and they feel like the teacher is right there looking at them, even though they’re not.”

Meanwhile, in the “arena,” as they call it to keep it fun, two adults manage the class, answering questions, dealing with computer problems or simply keeping order. Their in-person attention frees up the virtual teachers to focus solely on how their students are performing.

The kids are engaged through instant feedback, and motivated to get answers right and finish, so they can enter an area of the software that lets them play math games of their choosing.

If a student gets 75 percent of his questions right, he gets a “COW,” which means they passed their “Competency of the Week.” This success is represented on a sticker charter with, of course, cow stickers.

At the end of each session, there’s a ceremony to award the cows. Names are read, and kids cheer. Even kids at home – because the program is computer-based, kids can take part from home, if transportation issues arise.

“If you didn’t get a cow this time, what do you do?” Durant calls from the front of the room. “Keep practicing! You’re building those math muscles!”

And those muscles truly are sprouting. Durant showed off a color-coded grid that tracked student progress through the pilot. Red signified a lack of competency, green the opposite. The pre-assessment grid had lots of red on it; the post-assessment grid looked to be about 80 percent green.

Morgan Romanowski, who attends Dove Academy, said he was a C student in math before coming to the Accelerator. Now he’s an A. Last year, he had the most “COWS,” and received tickets to the Detroit Zoo.

“It’s fun, because now I can look at a problem with a number like 312 and a number like 24 and multiply it and get the answer,” he said. “I couldn’t do that before this program.”

The program is also a prime example of the power of collaborations.

While the program is organized and run by the staff from Cornerstone Schools, it was made possible only when other stakeholders jumped on board.

The Matrix Center became home base. Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, a resident-led coalition organization working for neighborhood change for kids, jumped into recruiting kids to attend. ONA’s deep neighborhood connections opened doors at nearby schools that otherwise might have been reluctant to send their kids to a program run by a competitor.  There are 13 schools now sending kids to the program.

“We believe more kids will benefit from high-quality programming that is so crucial to their development when organizations collaborate,” Skillman Foundation program officer Laura Hughes said. “That’s one really remarkable thing about this program. It’s also a great example of programming that really re-enforces and adds to what they’re learning in the classroom, in a way that’s almost sneaky and really fun. This really showcases the power of high-quality youth development.”

And parents have raved, too. In a survey after the pilot, they gave comments like, “It made math fun and doable.” “My kid was sad because she had to miss class during a vacation in Florida.” And, “His sibling wants to go because he hears how fun it is.”

Ninety-six percent of parents polled said they would send their child to the program again. Principals are pleased, too.

“I do know that the students that finished the program show more enthusiasm with regard to math,” said Ethel Judon, a vice principal at Brenda Scott Academy, one of the school’s sending kids to the program. “The teachers commented that the students seem to enjoy math more and were not afraid to tackle more difficult problems. I believe that if students overcome their fear about math that is a giant step toward moving them toward proficiency.”

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