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Language-free math program leads to dramatic gains in Chicago's South Side

ST Math, from the MIND Research Institute, uses a visual approach to teach core concepts

A visitor to any of the 27 schools in Chicago's Area Thirteen will see students busily engaged in a recently implemented math software program and bubbling with talk about a penguin named JiJi, the program's endearing mascot. And a look at gains in test scores would reveal that students in these schools, on the city's South Side, are setting records for math achievement.


The picture wasn't always so bright. A scant 15 months ago, at the start of the 2009-10 school year, math scores in the region had been stagnant or declining for a decade, according to Shawn Smith, who was then the newly hired Chief Area Officer for Area Thirteen. Fewer than half the region's 15,000 students were passing the state's standardized test in math, and less than 10 percent were college-ready in math performance.

"I knew we had to implement a strategy to turn around those test scores," Smith said. "One of the things we decided to do was leverage technology to facilitate and accelerate the achievement."

Smith immediately implemented a program called ST Math, which he had used as a teacher and principal earlier in his career, in California. "There's a lot of math instructional software out there, but ST Math is far and away quite different from everything else," he said.

"It gives you the ability to think in images, to manipulate an object over time and space, and to sequence and plan things out two, three and four steps ahead of time."

ST Math is a computer-based supplemental math program that is completely language-independent. Developed by the MIND Research Institute, a non-profit organization in California, it is founded on many years of neuroscience and education research.

The K-8 program's visual approach to math instruction is incorporated into self-paced activities that align to state standards and complement any textbook. Students work at their own pace on a series of animated games that have no verbal or written instructions; instead, the program is based on a visual, conceptual and problem-solving approach. Activities are hosted by JiJi the penguin, who silently indicates if a student has succeeded in a game by confidently crossing a little bridge.

There is also an administrative function that allows a principal to monitor students' progress with the program.

Because ST Math is language- independent, students who read below grade level or whose native language is not English face no barriers to math instruction. But the benefits go beyond that, according to Smith. "This program is unique because it actually strengthens the part of the brain that gives us spatial temporal reasoning," he said. "It gives you the ability to think in images, to manipulate an object over time and space and to sequence and plan things out two, three and four steps ahead of time."

In September 2009, Area Thirteen piloted ST Math in grades 3-5; by September 2010, it was fully implemented in grades K-8 in every school. Smith said the speedy implementation was made possible by a cross-functional leadership team headed by his deputies for curriculum and technology.

"Initially, teachers were skeptical, as they should be," said Ann Chavez, Deputy of Curriculum and Instruction. "But once they saw the software and watched kids on the program they were fully convinced. They saw that kids are motivated and enjoy the learning process, and how they suddenly start making connections in math."

The students' enthusiasm for the program quickly trans- lated into test score gains. "On nationally norm-referenced tests we outpaced the national average for growth in math for our 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students," Smith said. "And for growth, we also outpaced our district average, which this part of the city has not seen in the last 10 years of student achievement performance."

For students, the jump in test scores from ST Math tells only part of the story. "For the first time, many of our kids are experiencing mathematical success," Smith said. "That's not been something they're accustomed to. So it's building confidence in kids about how they see themselves as students."

For more information about ST Math, please visit