Winning a piece of that Pi

Under a picture of Malcolm X n the auditorium of Meany Middle School, the sixth- and seventh graders of Meany and Madrona K-8 School are competing for the second time this year. But they are not engaged in a tough sporting match or a cheerleading competition. No, they are engaged in a healthy competition of math wizardry.

And the prize? A giant, stuffed pig named Pi.

A Ray of Hope
What now is called the Algebra-thon started last autumn for Meany and Madrona. Seattle Sonics player Ray Allen went to the Seattle School district to donate money through his foundation Ray of Hope to help African-American children succeed in school.

According to Madrona principal Kaaren Andrews, groups of people within the community already showed alarm and concern over the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores. They heard of the potential donation from the Ray of Hope Foundation and took Allen up on his offer.

The two schools, which are predominantly African American, were selected to receive the money because they showed the most need academically.

"It's a pilot program," said Matt Wade, executive director of Ray of Hope, "to get the formula down and make improvements."

The Ray of Hope Foundation gave $30,000 to start the Extended Learning Program at both schools. The sixth-graders at Meany and the sixth- and seventh-graders at Madrona spend two days after school in advanced math and algebra classes. (The Extended Learning Program also includes a component for literature skills, but no competition exists between the two schools testing on that knowledge.)

The money from the foundation pays the teachers for the time they instruct after school.

Meany has 135 students in the program, while 110 students participate from Madrona.

Hinterson Carlyle, a second-year science and math teacher at Madrona, explained the students practice their math skills in a collaborative setting and style, using computer software with swift progress reports; hands-on algebraic scales, multi-colored dice and pawns for resolving math problems with tangible evidence; and regular "family problems of the week" to increase parents' involvement with their children's schoolwork.

At the Algebrathon, held at the end of every quarter, the students split up into groups of four and discuss the problems before submitting their answers.

"The students think a little deeper," Carlyle said. "And they can communicate their answers. [Because of the collaborative format] it seems to be easier to communicate mathematically."

Another outside organization called GEAR-UP provides transportation for the after-school programs. They also provide the students with college-level tutors from the University of Washington.

"Children of color face big barriers for getting into college," said Meany principal Princess Shareef, who doubles as a math teacher for the Extended Learning Program.

"The classes help them on their path to college," Andrews explained. "A lot of research has been done showing that more students apply to college who have taken algebra by the eighth grade. By staying after school [to study algebra], we're saying we're raising the bar."

Carlyle, Andrews and Shareef are excited with the prospect of lifting their students' confidence with algebra and math skills.

"We're having kids who feel confident and comfortable in their advanced math classes," Shareef said. "They're believing they can do it."

The competition
At the first Algebrathon, last November, Madrona walked away with Pi the pig. In the second Algebrathon on Jan. 20, Meany won Pi.

But the true measure of success? One group of students earned a perfect score with the first round of algebra questions at the first Alge-brathon. At the second Algebrathon, eight groups obtained perfect scores after only the first round.

Devante Meullion, Christian Sison, Lynasia Gillial and Samantha Stewart made up one team at the Algebrathon. Although they didn't know whether they would end up on the same team until the afternoon of the January competition, they worked through their algebra questions as if they had worked together as a team for the entire semester.

"[Madrona] won the pig last time," Meany student Meullion said at the January competition. "We just want to win that big, old pig now."

Sison, Meullion and Gillial think their math skills have improved over the last year. Although the sixth- and seventh-graders have not been formally tested on the material, the Madrona and Meany teachers anticipate their WASL scores next fall will rise, based solely upon the students' day-to-day improvements.

"We can see the growth from the beginning to the end of the semester," Carlyle said.

"I think we're all really excited in seeing what happens with the WASL," Andrews said. "Over the last couple of days, the kids have been walking around the hallways talking about forming study groups. Instead of talking about sporting events, they're talking about how to win back that pig."

The students will compete again for Pi at the next Algebrathon on April 7.

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