"We’re focused on recruiting tutors age 50+ because we feel they can bring more to the table, particularly on the mentoring side of things."

Marian McElroy
Chicago, IL


I was at an education conference in 2007 when a professor from DePaul University showed test scores that put North Chicago, the wonderful school district I grew up in, at rock bottom in reading and math. I was shocked and embarrassed. A punch in the gut would have felt better.

I had no idea how bad things had gotten. It was an emotional moment for me. I knew I had to do something. I called my two younger brothers.

Our parents had moved us to North Chicago when we were in elementary school. Our father accepted a job teaching electronics and math at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, where everyone who joins the Navy starts out. My mom was a teacher, too. We all received a good education and went on to attend college.

I went to Howard University and then Northwestern University Law School. I studied economics with a minor in French because I wanted to work for the State Department. I practiced law for nearly 25 years.

Both of my brothers were engineers and had been involved in various STEM projects. I told them what was going on in North Chicago and said, “Our community needs your help.” We did a ton of research and worked together to develop a curriculum that became the 4RealMath program.

We wanted to focus on helping underserved middle school students who struggle with math by providing them with an interactive, personalized and supportive approach. We knew that underrepresented students learn best when they connect what they’re learning to what they already know about the world, and that middle school is a critical time to intervene.

In 2008 we piloted our first 4RealMath project with the middle school we’d all attended. Luckily, the principal there loved the idea and immediately saw the value. He procured the initial funds needed and said, “We don’t have enough time after school, but we can do this before school.”

We worried kids wouldn’t show up for this at seven in the morning, but we went ahead and sent out notices to the parents. And, sure enough, about 20 students showed up. We were shocked, amazed and ecstatic! Some of the parents had coordinated carpools, because it was before the school bus picked the children up. Others students arrived by taxi.

Our first day of class was the day that Obama was being inaugurated. There was so much excitement about that and we knew people who were traveling to D.C., but we felt we could better serve our community and honor that historic day if we stayed and worked with the kids here. Both of my brothers flew home, and soon after we hired two math teachers and two high school seniors who were excelling in math to support the program’s growth.

I was the program director, managing the administrative side of things, but I hit a point when I realized I needed to go back to school and become a math person, too. I couldn’t keep talking about math and not understand how to teach it myself.

So I took a bunch of math classes at a community college while we continued implementing 4RealMath projects in schools, park districts and summer community programs. Then I was hired by the University of Chicago as a math tutorial fellow and assigned to a school on the south side of Chicago. I worked there, and the following year I became the founding site director for the math lab at the University of Chicago’s high school charter school on the south side of Chicago. I also enrolled in a math teachers program at the University of Chicago.

A University of Chicago study revealed that high school students in small group tutorials were able to increase by two or more grade levels in math in a single year. Our plan now is to take that research and implement middle school projects. And instead of working in larger groups as we’ve done in the past, we’ll pair two students with one tutor who is proficient in math and can act as a mentor.

We’re focused on recruiting tutors age 50+ because we feel they can bring more to the table, particularly on the mentoring side of things. They tend to either be retired teachers or people age 50+ in the community who work well with kids. One older adult volunteer told us that she didn’t have strong math skills, but she’d taught for a number of years and was good with behavior management. During one summer project we had problems with some of the students and their attendance. She was familiar with many of the parents in the community and went to the homes and spoke to the parents about the importance of the project. She was successful in getting students to return.

To get kids to have agency over their work takes an adult who knows the world that’s waiting out there, who can look into that crystal ball and say, “This is why you need to know this.” A lot of young people really need someone who they feel is in their corner to keep them engaged, people they know won’t give up on them.

This story appeared in The Christian Science Monitor

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