You know the old saw about pennies, wisdom, pounds and fools? Bare bones though the budget may be, someone over at Minneapolis Public Schools’ headquarters might want to do a little of that fancy new math educators are all over and find a way to write Aneesa Parks’ full-time job back into it.
The math coach at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School on Minneapolis’ near north side since the school was “fresh started” in 2007, Parks has been cut to half time this year. Never mind that she’s on the verge of accomplishing the very thing that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has said is top priority: She has figured out how to help large numbers of struggling kids with disparate learning gaps make accelerated progress, as well as how to show other teachers the same strategies.
It’s a perennial challenge for teachers whose classrooms have high concentrations of struggling kids: How do you simultaneously teach grade-level material and identify and plug the learning gaps that render those lessons incomprehensible to much of the class?
Over the last three years, Parks has helped countless struggling kids master the skills needed to get up to grade level in math. She’s coached teachers on implementing her “math recovery” techniques in the classroom. Sometimes they watch her teach, sometimes she watches them and doles out feedback.
She’s developed assessments to help those same overburdened teachers determine on the fly precisely which concepts and skills each struggling child needs to be exposed to. She’s even put together a kit bag of lessons for plugging those gaps quickly and effectively.
Parks has crunched more data than entire school district divisions to discern what’s working and what isn’t. In the process, she’s become very efficient.
For example, a pupil’s answer to a single simple question — what do nine and five equal? — can reveal volumes. Parks holds up both hands and starts counting off fingers by way of illustration. Does the child count to nine and then to five or have they mastered the concept of tens?
“My questioning is so much better than it was five years ago,” she explained. “I’m not just getting an answer — I’m getting how they’re thinking.”
Parks offers another illustration: Say there are 20-plus kids in a third-grade classroom but only six are working at grade level. “You can’t stop teaching third grade,” she said. “You have to find a way to reach those kids and help them ‘scaffold’ up.”
At Nellie Stone Johnson, that means spending 60 minutes on grade-level math and another 30 on math recovery.
Math recovery works for a number of reasons, according to Park. For starters, her data suggest that each year a larger percentage of each class starts the year at grade level. In fact, year-over-year proficiency has doubled in some groups she’s worked with.
“But it also should become self-perpetuating,” she said. “Because kids love to be successful and they want their friends to be successful.”
And Parks swears math recovery is fun. “The [kids] are always playing games,” she said. “When kids are in investigative mode, they want to solve that problem. What situational context can we put that in to make them so curious they want to solve that problem?”
This year, the first cadre of kids to benefit from Parks’ coaching is entering the third grade, which means they will take standardized state tests for the first time next spring. Their scores may well make district brass look downright pound-foolish.
“We have a lot of the right answers,” said Parks. “We know how to do it.”
The first two years she had the job, her salary and those of six other north-side math coaches was paid by a grant from Vanderbilt University. When it ran out last year, the district took over the expense. Faced with a $19 million budget shortfall this year and a projected gap of $20 million in 2011-12, last spring the district cut her position altogether.
Parks is still on the job half-time this year only because her former principal, new Associate Superintendent Mark Bonine, diverted funds from other school-level projects to keep her.
Over the summer, Nellie Stone Johnson had to cut $300,000 from its budget. When Bonine asked teachers to prioritize what to keep, there was universal agreement about Parks’ job.
For the record, Parks has nothing but sympathy for the budget-watchers’ plight and is quick to note that she, personally, will be fine. She’s having a baby in the near future and can stand to work half-time.
It’s Nellie Stone Johnson’s kids who will lose out, she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it half-time,” she said. “It’s incredibly hard work to match instruction to an individual child.
Now, about those pennies and pounds …