Parents add up to a formula for success

Schools offer algebra refresher classes to adults who want to help their children with homework

October 17, 2005|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

When Mike Manik tried to help his son with his middle school math homework, the only real lifeline seemed to be the answers in the back of the textbook.

"Helpless" is how the 38-year-old Rosedale man described his situation - "I wouldn't recognize the things I was looking at."

But last week, Manik returned to the school where he had flunked algebra two decades ago. This time, he sat in the front row of the classroom with other parents, reviewing the order of operations and debating the best use for means, medians or modes.

He didn't master every principle that night at Overlea High, but he came away with reason for hope: "I could almost figure them out."

For some parents, helping their children with math homework can be a scary proposition. Their memories of the subject might be, at best, faint - at worst, painful. Over the years, some teachers have worked independently to ease a parent's anxiety, but now, with a mastery of algebra soon to be required for high school graduation, school systems in Maryland and beyond are finding ways to assist families on a larger scale.

A Southern California school district and a high school in Ohio have offered refresher courses in math for parents. Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville and several Carroll County schools, such as Westminster's Winters Mill High School, have as well.

Winters Mill teacher Kirstie Troutman said she has offered the class for three years, inspired by requests for help at parent conferences. Now, the school also offers a similar class in geometry.

Winters Mill sophomore Patrick Garvey, 15, said he benefited when his parents took Troutman's class last fall. "They were able to give me a lot more help with my homework," he said.

Parents from Baltimore County's PTA Council asked the county school system's mathematics curriculum leaders last spring what they could do to help their children with algebra. The math office then worked with parent support services to organize the two three-session courses, held at New Town and Overlea high schools. More than 20 parents signed up for each free Algebra Awareness class, and the school system is considering offering the course again, perhaps in the spring.

"Some parents have a bad taste in their mouth from what they've learned in Algebra I," said Patricia C. Baltzley, who supervises mathematics instruction for Baltimore County schools. She said the course that she and others developed for county parents is designed to "dispel some of the horror attacks."

Baltimore County Deputy Superintendent Christine M. Johns said that although many people feel comfortable helping new readers, "math tends to be just a little more intimidating." She knows of no studies that looked specifically at how math refresher courses for parents might affect student achievement, but research confirms that students achieve when parents are involved in schools.

"It takes parents, students and teachers, working together, to help children perform," she said.

The parents who gathered in a brightly lit room at New Town High School in Owings Mills last Monday evening had their own reasons for attending the class.

JoAnn Howell, whose son, Brent, is an eighth-grader at Parkville Middle School, came to understand how to use a new tool. Graphing calculators are now standard equipment in Baltimore County's algebra courses, and Howell brought her son's calculator - a $200 investment, including an extended warranty and rechargeable batteries. "I'm in a slide-rule generation," she said.

Others hoped to decipher the terms their children's teachers used. "I want to learn their lingo," said Larry Siegel of Reisterstown, who last studied algebra 35 years ago. His daughter, Erica, is an eighth-grader at Franklin Middle School.

Sharon A. Dudek, chairwoman of the math department at Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown, led Howell, Siegel and 17 other parents of middle- and high-schoolers through several exercises with the calculators, including determining the radius of a ball.

Dudek also reviewed requirements for children who will graduate from high school in or after 2009. After completing algebra, those students will have to pass the High School Assessment exam in algebra and data analysis, one of four tests required to earn a diploma. Middle-schoolers will also take the Maryland School Assessment in March and a final exam in June.

The teacher also offered her charges some bonus information - how to delete any games students might have surreptitiously downloaded to their calculators.

Dudek handed out worksheets and pages of reference formulas with the practiced hand movements of a 25-year teaching veteran. Over the years, she has sat down with parents and students to go over concepts the children don't understand and the parents can't explain to them.

"Parents are very free to admit that they don't know math," she said.

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