In a school with a large population of special needs and non-native English speaking students, frustration and surrender are major challenges for the staff. Turns out an animated penguin can make life easier for everyone involved.
"Some kids go into a tizzy when they get something wrong and lots of kids quit when they do poorly," said Gary Schadow, principal of Dream Lake Elementary school in Apopka, Fla., a pre-K through fifth grade school that serves all of the region's special needs students. "Our kids now understand if you don't get it right, that's OK. Just keep trying. JiJi doesn't care."
JiJi, the mascot of MIND Research Institute's ST Math program, is the escort for students through computerized math lessons, leading them through various scenarios, games and puzzles. The character crosses a bridge to the next challenge after students provide correct answers, and turns around if they give incorrect ones. This gentle approach seems to inspire rather than discourage the students.
"With JiJi, our kids get more confident," said Schadow, whose school serves 820 students, 19 percent of whom require special needs instruction and 27 percent of whom come from homes where English is not the primary language.
First attracted to ST Math because it didn't push rote math facts or require strong verbal skills, Schadow said he thought he'd have to sell the students on the new way of learning. He was happily wrong about that.
"We have to be careful they don't log onto JiJi when they're supposed to be doing language arts," he said.
Dream Lake teachers have reported that students now understand lessons more quickly and are learning concepts such as fractions from JiJi before teachers address the topics in class.
"They learn the concept without knowing the name for it," Schadow said. And when the teachers get to those lessons, "they can teach the curriculum faster than they ever have before".
Besides helping mid-level and special needs kids, ST Math has positively impacted the highest-achieving students, whose needs were not always being met.
"My teachers like it because now we're challenging our top end," Schadow said.
Dream Lake began using ST Math for grades three and four a year ago and for grades two and five this year. Next year, kindergarten and first grade students will get the chance to learn with JiJi. All the students spend time in the computer lab an average of three times a week. Proof that it's time well-spent has come from greatly improved standardized tests.
On the FCAT, Florida's standardized exam, Dream Lake's students scored "better than the other schools around us" and "showed us challenging our top-end kids," Schadow said.
"We received the second highest gains in mathematics in Orange County—only one point lower than the first," he said.
Increases included a jump in percentage of students completing a year's curriculum during a school year, and in the percentage of students scoring at grade level, which was the school's first increase after a five-year plateau.
Schadow noted that all of the recent scores are "the highest they've ever been for Dream Lake."
While his staff is certainly to be congratulated, kudos go in large part to JiJi.
"We believe the biggest significant change for us was in using ST Math," Schadow said.