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Mathnasium works to enrich, motivate math students

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By Deborah Swearingen

Closing in on the end of its second year in business, Mathnasium of Littleton is working to promote math and make the subject fun for all.

The center provides tutoring and enrichment services for children in second through 12th grades. Some gifted kindergartners and first-graders come in, but they are a rarity.

“Whether they’re behind and needing to fill in gaps or whether they’re ahead and needing enrichment, an extra challenge because they’re getting bored in class — those are typically the two extremes that we work with,” said Suzie Shride, Mathnasium’s director.

The Mathnasium is open six days a week, and students are free to come in as much or as little as they like. Generally speaking, students visit twice a week, Shride said.

Shride, a former elementary school teacher, said she lives for the “aha moments” of teaching, when it’s clear that the students understand what’s being taught.

“In a classroom with 27 or 30 students, it’s just difficult to see that regularly. … Here, we see it all the time,” she said.

The center has about 12 part-time instructors who help tutor. Though proficiency in math is important — tutors must pass two rigorous math examinations — it’s not the only requirement to be a successful tutor at the Mathnasium.

“… They have to love kids, and they have to be able to work with everybody from kindergartners who are just learning to count all, the way up to pre-calc students,” Shride said.

And she said tutors must learn to accept that their methodology might not work for every individual. Tutors learn to “teach it and move on,” Shride said. This means if they can’t see some understanding within five minutes or so, the tutor must pass the lesson off to a different tutor, who might make a better connection.

“We explain a concept. We work with a child on it. We do a lot of Socratic questioning,” she said. “And once we’ve seen a child demonstrate some understanding of the concept, we actually leave them and let them work a couple minutes on their own. … It allows them to become independent learners.”

The Mathnasium has a broad reach, helping students from Jeffco Public Schools, Littleton Public Schools, Denver Public Schools and the Douglas County School District. To provide the most effective help possible, Shride and her staff became familiar with Colorado’s state standards and the curriculum for each district.

For those looking to try out the Mathnasium, Shride offers a free trial session when students come in for an hour and work with a tutor on their homework.

When a student officially signs up for lessons, the Mathnasium requires a free math assessment. The assessment includes a tour of the center, as well as a verbal and written assessment. Much to the delight of the students, the assessment is looking for what they don’t know.

“If you’re ahead in math, I’m going to be looking for what you don’t know that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re frustrated with math, I’m going to look all the way back to kindergarten and see if there’s stuff that didn’t stick,” she said.

From there, each child receives a custom learning plan, and tutoring commences.

The TriMATHlon

Each year, the Mathnasium in Littleton and other Mathnasium centers across the U.S. host an event called the TriMathlon.

The event is similar to a spelling bee but instead includes three rounds of math worksheets. Students from various South Jeffco schools participate, including Blue Heron Elementary School, Columbine Hills and Normandy.

At this year’s event, held Nov. 5, 82 children participated. The Mathnasium donates $10 per participant to the schools they attend. Shride said Normandy won this year with 17 students.

Unlike a spelling bee, no one is eliminated. Only the scorers know how each individual student did in the competition.

“I think that is a beautiful thing about it. … Even kids that aren’t very good at math can come and try it,” Shride said. “… My goal eventually is to get all kids, even struggling kids, to give it a shot.”

To learn more about the center or to sign a child up for tutoring or a free assessment, visit www.mathnasium.com/Littleton or call 303-979-9077.