When Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy for Young Women, a Portland Public Schools STEM school for girls in grades 6-12, was abruptly closed in June of 2012, the girls were devastated . Students and the community fought admirably to keep their school open, but the district was intent on closing it. A small group of parents and students formed Girls Lead, a club to encourage the girls to continue their pursuits in math, science, and public speaking. Girls Lead Summer Math Camp was proposed to give girls an opportunity to improve their basic math skills and provide math challenges. Thanks to a grant from the Herbert A. Templeton Foundation, camp was free to girls in grades 6-8, living in North Portland, and attending schools in the Jefferson cluster.
The all-volunteer camp staff was headed by Deb Mayer, director and lead teacher; Jyothi Pulla, parent liaison; and Carolyn Leonard, community support advisor. Several additional volunteers offered their math talents daily in order to make camp fun, varied, and relevant. We practiced drills, played games, held friendly competitions, and shared experiences. Together, we learned much about math, problems and solutions, and each other.
We discovered two things to be quite surprising. One had to do with math skills, the other with attitudes and perceptions. We found all the girls to be lacking in basic math skills. After giving a targeted placement test, we found the scores less than anticipated. Most parents had mentioned their daughters were “weak” in math at registration, so we were expecting to do some remediation. But, we hadn’t anticipated such a wide gap between what the girls knew and what they were expected to know at grade level. These were smart, vibrant girls. Puzzling.
Carolyn Leonard, retired PPS teacher and administrator, suspects the deficiency may have something to do with the math textbook/publisher adopted by Portland Public Schools that introduces calculators in the primary grades. ”When students can point and click to find an answer to a simple problem and aren’t required to memorize math facts or do mental math, they can quickly fall behind,” she said.
To address the lack of basic skills, Key Math was introduced. A focused twenty minute drill each day to learn math facts and operations. Math can be a struggle when counting on your fingers is the primary strategy. Key math emphasizes speed and accuracy in doing basic math problems. The program is designed to produce competent and confident students.
Most of the girls, as we anticipated, didn’t like math much as shown by an attitude survey. No surprise there. The surprising thing was that each of these girls, as diverse and the group was, brought with them a similar perception of their self-worth. They saw themselves first and foremost as consumers. They wanted to know about the math of money. For the most part, they come from low-income families where their parents or guardians must spend every cent on basic necessities. They don’t get allowances. They don’t get paid for doing chores. They are too young to work. In a society that values its citizens primarily as consumers, they feel marginalized. They don’t see themselves as having value apart from their ability to spend money. Troubling.
To accommodate the girls’ need to know more about personal economics, we interviewed them to find out about their interests. They wanted to know about the math of shopping (no surprise there), reading food labels, planning an itinerary, how much stuff cost, coupons and discounts, planning a career, how much money people make, and so on. My goals for them were a bit more esoteric, so, in addition, I devised activities that emphasized the beauty and language of math — topics such as factorials, the power of exponents, estimation, and large numbers — topics they latched on to immediately.
Each day we solved a problem together, and then volunteers gave girls one-on-one attention to complete similar problems. Opportunities for student-led conversations were plentiful. Opportunities for us to listen — priceless.
According to posttest results, in only five weeks the girls made significant gains in basic math skills, but they are still below grade level. It will take time and continued, focused effort for them to catch up. The community needs a tutoring center where kids can go to get help with math.
On the last day of Summer Math Camp, we offered to continue camp as Key Math Lab PDX. Some girls continued, and other neighborhood children signed up through August when we closed.
We hope to open again in October after the school year has begun. The Lab will be open to all students, both boys and girls, offering tutoring in basic elementary and middle school math skills. Developing the curriculum was easy, and it seems that volunteers are willing to give their time and expertise. Altering kids’ perceptions of themselves from valued consumers to valued citizens will take continued effort. Key Math Lab PDX isn’t just about learning basic math skills. It’s about developing competence and confidence in academics. It’s about developing relationships between tutors, parents, and students that stress the importance of study. It’s about providing guidance to kids who need it..
Key Math Lab PDX will open for the fall session at our temporary location, McCoy Village Community Room, 4330 NE Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in October for as long as we can sustain it.
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