There is absolutely no mercy given in Brett Darling's classroom.

"And 15 times 2 is? And 15 times 3 is? And 15 times 4 is? C'mon you two -- people's math future is in jeopardy here. You can do this," he says.

Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts advertising the Ironwood High School basketball team he helps coach during the school year, Darling alternates between chastising and encouraging Chezarae Varela, 14, and Nick Henkel, 15.

The students are participants in Amphitheater Public Schools summer AIMS Prep Program at Coronado K-8 School. They are perplexed by a math equation and they're on the hot seat, assigned with solving the numbers-plus-letters problem for their respective four-person math teams. Darling sits at a desk 10 feet from the floor-to-ceiling chalkboard, calling out suggestions.

Varela throws her head back in mock frustration, when, after working the problem, Darling issues forth a command about dividing, multiplying, carrying and crossing out. Henkel scribbles madly on the board, but his eyes show he's unsure of his answer and he looks to Darling for help. The teacher stands, heads to the board and leans on it with one hand, the other hand gesturing fervently to both students, urging them on. It is obvious both Henkel and Varela long only to sit down, to let someone else have a shot at .15y = 7.5, but Darling refuses. They will work the problem until they understand it or he's not doing his job.

It takes about five minutes of fits and starts, but the equation is finally solved. Henkel and Varela sit down and two more math victims rise to the challenge Darling proposes next. The process is repeated: Students working, Darling coaching, chastising, pacing, leaning on the board, refusing to let his charges take short-cuts through the work meant to prepare them for the state-mandated Arizona Instrument to Measures Standards test.

He knows his job is important - the students in this summer school class have been identified as having trouble with one or more of the areas of the AIMS test, Arizona's answer to the federal requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The test is nothing if not high-stakes: By 2006, passing it will become a prerequisite for receiving a high school diploma.

In an effort to make sure all students pass by that year, Arizona school districts have been administering the tests to eighth-through-12th-graders for the past three years. Students who do not receive a "meets or exceeds standards" mark in reading, writing and mathematics - the only subjects the AIMS covers - have to take those sections again until they pass. The AIMS summer preparation program is one way to help them reach that goal.

When most of their friends are sleeping in, going to matinees and hanging out at the community pools, the 48 students in the five-week AIMS prep class are honing their math and language skills. Offered at Coronado, 3401 E. Wilds Road, and Amphi High School, 125 W. Yavapai Road, the class runs Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. If the students complete all five weeks with no more than two absences, they will get one elective credit applied to their high school transcript.

During their six-hour day, the students attend four classes: math procedures, reading, math testing and writing. They get a break for lunch and are offered breakfast before class starts at 8 a.m., said Cathleen Smith, program director.

"I don't like getting up, but this will help me prepare for the AIMS test and pass it easier," said Christopher Oaks, 14, who will be in ninth grade at Ironwood Ridge High School, 2475 W. Naranja Drive, next year. "I want to pass high school, go to college, get an education and get a good job. I can't do it if I don't pass the AIMS."

The program is open to all students who are entering ninth grade through those who are entering 12th, said Smith, adding that she doesn't think all students who could benefit take advantage of it.

Students are recommended by teachers to the district's Project ACHIEVE office, the office which runs Amphi's after-school programs at schools with large populations of low socio-economic students. Once the ACHIEVE office gets the recommendations, staff members send letters of invitation to the parents of identified students. It is up to the parents to accept the invitation.

This year, nearly 70 students' names were forwarded to the ACHIEVE office, Smith said, and of those, 48 decided to enroll in the program.

"I can't believe these are the only children who need help, but these are the only ones who got referred," said Smith, adding that she is not sure where "the communication breakdown might be" in getting teachers and counselors to know the program is available. "I'm certain more than 70 kids could use this help," she says.

There are about 16,500 students in the Amphi district.

The AIMS prep program is funded as part of the approximately $237,000 Amphi receives through the federally funded 21st Century Grant that supports Project ACHIEVE. AIMS prep costs $7,300, said Gail Bornefield, Amphi executive director of student services, of which approximately $2,500 is Smith's salary. The seven teachers in the program get $17 per hour and the residual funding goes toward transportation and meals for students.

Darling is one of two teachers at Coronado; the five remaining teachers are at Amphi High. Smith said the staffing discrepancy is because there are no limited English learners at Coronado, whereas most of the students taught at the Amphi site are such. Depending on the level of language proficiency a student has, the teacher-pupil ratio can be as low as one-to-four at Amphi in the language-arts segments, Smith said, and at Coronado, the ratio is never larger than one-to-10 for either math or English classes.

Smith said most students only come to AIMS prep classes one summer, but she has had a few that have repeated it twice or three times in its four-year run.

"I have a lot of respect for the kids who come back here for a second or third year, especially when all their friends are sleeping in or hanging out at the mall - I have one student, this is his third year. He is in the highest level in math skills, but struggles with language. He says he enjoys (the program) because he can ask all the questions he has. When you are in a class of 25 or 30, you may feel too embarrassed or shy to ask, but throw them in a class of six or seven and they have to talk at some point."

Much of the curriculum used in the AIMS summer program is developed by the teachers who have participated in the program, Smith said, but they also use the "Sharpen Up" and "Buckle Down" booklets produced by the Buckle Down Company in Iowa City, Iowa. The company develops test books specifically for states that have developed tests to comply with No Child Left Behind.

Smith said she has not followed the students who take AIMS summer prep through the next year to their AIMS testing in the spring, but her experience speaking with the teachers in the classes, demonstrates that the program works.

"The fact is, kids do better in smaller classes," she said. "In classes of 30, kids fall through the cracks. What is great with this program is both the teachers and students see success quickly. They can work one-on-one and - the (increase in the) confidence of the kids at the beginning of the program and at the end is so great. It is really rewarding for us as teachers."

Aisling Eller, 15, who will be a sophomore at Canyon del Oro High School, 25 W. Calle Concordia, next year said it has been rewarding for her as well.

"My parents made me come the first year, but this year I'm coming for the credit and for the help," said Eller, who is in her second summer of AIMS prep. "I don't think the math is hard enough, but the language arts is teaching me a lot."

Does she think she'll pass the AIMS next spring?

"I sure hope so," she said.

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