21st Century/UNCA partnership makes math add up

Math literacy is crucial to succeeding in the 21st century, but difficulties with math remain one of the leading causes of school dropouts. Bridging that gap is the idea behind a partnership between the City of Asheville’s 21st Century community learning program and UNC Asheville’s Math and Social Justice class.

Each Monday afternoon over the past school year, UNCA students and Asheville Middle School students met for math tutoring. “Their focus is very much tied into our goals of enrichment,” says Ginny Alexander, Director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center. “It is part of making kids feel good about themselves, improving and getting more confident and not dropping out.”

The 21st Century program is part of the city’s West Riverside Operation Weed and Seed initiative and is funded through the State Department of Public Instruction by Department of Education’s Title IV “No Child Left Behind” federal funds. As grant administrator, the City of Asheville contracts with independent teachers and resource providers that incorporate learning into more aspects of student’s lives. That can include sports, cooking or even dance. “We want to get the kids to apply what they are learning,” says Alexander. “If we find new ways to engage students, they don’t even know they are learning.”

The UNC Asheville partnership grew out of a course developed by Associate Professor Sam Kaplan, who says that math literacy is one of today’s great social equalizers. “What you see about 100 years ago is a push towards reading and writing literacy, now you see the same push for math literacy,” Kaplan says.

Middle school students benefit from one-on-one tutoring sessions, while the UNCA students get tutoring experience and class credit. Tutors use creative techniques to turn the student’s homework and math problems into examples of real-life problem solving, showing the students how math applies to their lives. To mix it up, athletic activities designed to feature math problems get kids moving while thinking. At the end of each day, Kaplan and his students gather in the Asheville Middle School media center to discuss what they have learned.

Alexander points to the tutoring as an example of the prevention, intervention and neighborhood improvement strategies of the Weed and Seed initiative, giving children a better chance at staying in school and more options for their future.

“Kids in the Weed and Seed community say ‘I want more choices.’” Alexander says. “And knowledge of math gives you those choices.”