Penguin rescues Colorado school district from flat math scores
Part of MINDING MATH: A special report from MIND Research Institute
Most teachers wouldn’t appreciate giving up the spotlight to a penguin. But at Colorado Springs School District 11, teachers don’t seem to mind.
That’s because their students are hooked on ST Math, MIND Research Institute’s innovative program that teaches math with the help of a computer-animated penguin named JiJi.
“We’ve seen upward movement in our students,” said Dave Sawtelle, K-12 math facilitator for the district. The kids, he said, actually look forward to math class.
It wasn’t always that way in the district. Math scores were consistently flat despite the use of many different math programs. Educating urban students—53 percent of them eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and an increasing number whose primary language is not English—was a challenge. Many students lacked a deep understanding of number sense.
“We knew from a root examination of our system that our math program needed to be more robust,” Sawtelle said.
Added Dr. Jeanice Smith, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction curriculum and student services, “We’ve been hungry for a long time to break through on math.”
Enter MIND Research Institute, a non-profit organization based in California. Its ST Math program uses JiJi the penguin to engage students as they solve multi-step math problems. Based on advanced neuroscience research, ST Math is language-independent—meaning that poor reading skills or lack of proficiency in English aren’t barriers to learning math.
The district contracted with MIND Research last summer, and training was almost immediate.
“We trained over 900 educators in a 48-hour period,” Swift said. “MIND Research was fabulous in its technical people and support.”
Meanwhile, posters of JiJi around the school piqued student and teacher interest. Some teachers even tried logging their kids into the program before it was online.
“People were begging to be let in early; it was like a movie opening,” Swift said.
Some initial resistance came from a few teachers of high-achieving math students who thought their students didn’t need a new program, but Sawtelle said they soon embraced ST Math when they heard their students talking about how JiJi had challenged and helped them.
“We went shopping for an intervention for a sub-population of our kids who struggle with math, but we now recognize it’s for everyone,” Sawtelle said.
Now 13,000 K-5 students in 35 traditional and one online program work with JiJi in computer labs twice a week.
Kids love using the program to learn math, but teachers benefit from reports that show them when students are struggling with a concept, allowing them to tailor instruction to individual students. And administrators can easily check data to see whether teachers are fully implementing the program and progressing with it.
With ST Math and JiJi still new in Colorado Springs, the district is still awaiting results from the latest assessment tests to see if the program caused an uptick in scores compared to last year.
But even without conclusive data, they know it’s working from the excitement of the students, parents and staff. Sawtelle even saw a preschool sibling celebrating JiJi victories during a community night at school.
“She was tearing through kindergarten content and doing great,” he remembered, “doing fist pumps when she got answers right.”