Begin early nurturing math, science skills

As both Benjamin Disraeli and Mark Twain said long ago, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Still, the news about the dismal performance of students on math and science exams is frightening.

Test results, recently cited by President Barack Obama, placed 15-year-olds in the United States 21st in science among students in industrialized nations; in math we fared even worse, coming in 25th. For a nation used to being on top, these statistics should be a wake-up call.

But will they be? I’m not sure. We like quick fixes in the United States. Perhaps that is why we are focusing resources on high schools to improve our education standing worldwide.

There is only one thing wrong with that focus: It won’t work. Aside from doing nothing for students who have tuned out before getting that far, high school is too late for developing math and science skills. As a federally funded study concluded, scientists’ initial interest in their subject began before middle school.

The question is where dollars should be placed. Should we work with those still motivated when they get to high school? Or, alternatively, should we get to children in elementary school?

We must, I believe, do the latter. Since we need an educated work force if we are to compete in a global economy, we cannot afford to leave so many children behind.

Twenty years ago, I created an after-school program for at-risk children beginning in third grade. Based on the program’s success (41 percent of the children stayed with the program through high school and 95 percent of those who did so went on to college), I decided to take the program national five years ago. And I began locally by enlisting as partners Jim Gozzo, president of the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and Mark Sullivan, president of The College of Saint Rose.

Building on the elements of the original initiative that worked well and tweaking those that did not, we developed a program that starts in the third grade. It involves parents (or surrogates), so that what was learned in the academy is reinforced at home, uses college students as mentors and employs a curriculum of science and math to supplement what was learned during the school day. The program is located on a college campus, since participating children raise their horizons by immediately thinking of themselves as college students.

The results of the program have warranted the investment. Most recently, for instance, the children in the Albany College of Pharmacy Help Yourself Academy improved their in-class performance in their elementary school and passed the state’s fourth-grade science examination at a 93 percent rate, with 67 percent passing at the highest level. The rate of passage for nonparticipating children who attend the same elementary school was 78 percent, only 30 percent of whom passed at the highest level.

In the Saint Rose Help Yourself Academy, the children improved in school and passed the exam at a 92 percent rate, with 61 percent exceeding the regional mean, which included the affluent suburbs. Despite Disraeli’s and Twain’s admonition, these statistics are encouraging. Help Yourself academies (there are now 11 from Connecticut to Wyoming) are obviously no panacea. They are making a difference, though, in the lives of the boys and girls in the program. They just might make a dent in the dropout rate of at-risk children and our dismal national performance in math and science.

Roger Hull is president of the Help Yourself Foundation and a former president of Union College.

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