Math tutors make difference
Ed Stiles/Special to The Explorer, Emma Calabresse gets help from adult parent tutor Janet Ellis during a fifth-grade math class at Coronado K-12 School.

Coronado K-8 School is solving one of the knottiest problems in K-12 education — how to excite students about math, and raise their AIMS test scores.

Eighty-five percent of Coronado’s students now pass the math portion of the AIMS test compared to 75 percent five years ago.

In addition, the number of students scoring 90 percent or better has jumped by 15 percent.

This has helped the school go from an average “Performing School” to the top “Excelling School” category on the AIMS test, which is designed to assess students’ progress in meeting the state’s standards for reading, writing and math.

Although Coronado is a Title 1 school, with a large number of low-income students, its success has been fueled by something money can’t buy — a dedicated community of teachers, tutors and two volunteer program coordinators, Robert and Carla Springer.

The Springers are catalysts for Coronado’s success.

The two SaddleBrooke retirees, who have each volunteered more than 30 hours a week for the past five years, helped design the school’s math curriculum and continue to work with Coronado’s math teachers.

In the process, they have discovered a major weak link in grade-school math education — learning to multiply without a calculator.

Before starting the Coronado program, Robert Springer tutored high-school seniors who had failed the AIMS exit exam. “About 20 percent of them could not tell me the correct answer to eight times seven,” he said.

“If you can’t look at 42 and see that it’s six times seven, you can’t do math,” Carla Springer added. “You can’t divide. You can’t do algebra. You can’t do anything. So you need to learn to multiply, and there wasn’t the right emphasis on it.”

Rather than just trying to patch the problem before graduation, Robert Springer thought “we would be better off if we started at the front end,” which is what led the Springers to visit Coronado Principal Monica Nelson five years ago.

At just that time, Nelson was looking for a way to boost the school’s flagging math scores, and the Springers’ plan was tested in a third-grade class.

That trial was so successful that similar classes were set up for all third- and fourth-graders the following year.

Now the program — which is a marriage among technology, teachers and tutors — is taught in the third through sixth grades.

Every Coronado math class has a teacher, one or two tutors, a computer that generates problem sets and tests, and a card reader.

The computer prints out a different problem set for each student, and students select from multiple-choice answers on a bubble card that is scored by the optical reader, providing immediate feedback.

Scores of 80 percent or better earn a new set of computer-generated problems.

Scores lower than 80 draw a set of problems similar to the previous ones.

The student gets three tries to score 80 percent or better. After that, the computer alerts the teacher, who prints out an exercise on the concept.

This is where the tutors begin to work one-on-one to help students with difficult concepts.

“The tutors are key in this particular program,” Nelson said.

There are about 60 tutors, most of whom are retired engineers, scientists and others with strong math backgrounds.

They volunteer anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days a week.

Most are from SaddleBrooke, Oracle and other Northwest communities.

About six or seven are UA students, who are paid to tutor. They also serve as role models for some of the younger students, who might never have considered attending college.

SaddleBrooke Community Outreach funds the UA students, and the Amphitheater School District also provides funds for the math program.

Another $8,000 a year comes from donations raised by the Springers and the school.

Once students master a concept, the computer generates a test. But this is not the last time a topic is covered.

Periodically throughout the year, the computer selects problems from past material and includes them in the students’ problem sets.

While the curriculum was originally designed to help struggling students, “We saw not just the bottom kids doing better, but the top kids taking off, which was really exciting,” Nelson said.

Some students began working with the tutors to go faster than the class, and now Coronado offers some classes that cover two years of math in one year, which eventually fast-tracks students into early algebra and geometry classes.

The math curriculum continues to evolve, and the Springers are now creating videos that teachers can use to explain difficult concepts.

“We keep track of the progress very carefully,” Robert Springer said. “If it doesn’t work, we change it.”

In addition to the high-tech solutions, they still employ time-tested devices such as flash cards and students quizzing one another.

The Springers worked at Bell Labs before retiring, and Robert Springer began volunteer math tutoring in San Manuel about 10 years ago.

“In addition to their legacy in the business world, I believe the Springers are building a legacy here through their efforts with our school and the opportunities that then are afforded to our students,” Nelson said. “I’m grateful for their interest and expertise, as well as the expertise and the involvement of so many of the people from SaddleBrooke and from the University of Arizona.

“Having all this support is making an incredible difference in the lives of our children,” Nelson concluded.

This story appeared in the Dec. 31 SaddleBrooke Explorer.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.