A new after-school program at Robert Gray Elementary School seems to have done the impossible: motivate and excite 10- and 11-year-olds to learn math.

Almost 40 students are voluntarily attending the school’s Math Academy, a weekly program for fourth- and fifth-graders that provides “more repetition and longer (time) with concepts” for students struggling with math, said Mary Sundberg, fourth-grade math teacher.

“These are kids that absolutely can get it, but they need a little more time or a little more exposure,” Sundberg said.

The concept is simple. Sundberg and fifth-grade math teacher Shane Workman invite students to the after-school academy, where they hone their skills with an online, individualized math program that “(plugs) the holes in their learning,” Sundberg said. Then, the students play math-based games that reiterate basic math facts — and that students can easily play at home.

It’s an easy-to-run program that uses resources already available to the teachers and requires very little funding outside of small costs for paper, printing and snacks, Sundberg said.

“The hardest part I find in the fourth grade ... is just controlling the enthusiasm. They are excited to be there,” she said. “I think they just feel special, and that’s the thing we want to capitalize on.”

Research suggests that students tend to perform better in their math classes if they have a positive attitude toward the subject. A 2018 study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that a positive attitude about math has an equal effect on success in the subject as intelligence.

“We really want the positive effort about math,” Sundberg said. “If you feel positive about math, you’re more likely to persist in math. And math requires being persistent.”

The students’ reaction to Math Academy took teachers by surprise because students’ attitudes toward math are “really mostly negative,” Sundberg said. Math tends to be low on the list of favorite subjects for most students, Workman said.

That’s likely true across the state: Typically, fewer than half of all students in Washington pass the annual state standardized math test. Last school year in Longview only 33.1 percent of fourth graders and 32.8 percent of fifth graders passed, although Robert Gray’s passing rates were slightly higher than the district average.

“It takes a lot for a kid to sit down and really think things all the way through, so I expected more pushback,” Workman said.

Instead, attendance at the Robert Gray Math Academy has grown since its inception because “kids want to come, and that’s the thing that just blows me away,” Sundberg said. Workman added that the voluntary attendance is what makes it so effective.

“The kids that are in there learned to like it, and they come regularly and they look forward to it. And they are doing it without too much of an arm twisting,” Workman said. “I think a high percentage of the kids I see have the buy-in ... because they’ve already seen the results of how their hard work is paying off.”

Just halfway through the school year, Sundberg and Workman said many students are progressing much faster than their annual goals, which are set individually using a test designed for the purpose. Nineteen of the 25 fourth grade students attending Math Academy have already surpassed their goals for 2018-19.

Workman said he’s seen similar growth in his fifth graders. The two classes with students attending Math Academy have a “higher percentage of (growth) overall,” he said.

Math Academy’s success, both in raising student growth and attracting voluntary attendees, is made possible by the dedication of the staff, the students and the parents, Sundberg said.

New at Robert Gray this year, the program is a strategy Sundberg said she’d love to share with the other Longview schools. She said a variation of the program could work for every teacher if they could get the buy-in of the students, parents, principals and other school staff.

“(Math Academy) was born out of a desire to see kids do better and give them more opportunity,” Sundberg said. “Really, this is the foundation of math. If we can get them fluent with their facts and computations and problem solving — the basics in mathematics — they are going to do well as they go on.”

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