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Students Bag Their Lessons in Innovative Math Program

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Next year, homework for students at Sharp Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima will not only entail books and paper work, but also toy dinosaurs, colored sticks, dominoes and miniature houses packaged in plastic bags with a set of math questions.

The bagged assignments, customized for various grade levels, are part of a new program employing a hands-on approach to make homework more meaningful to students. The project is backed by a $6,200 grant from a California business consortium.

“Students in lower grades need tangible things to work with,” said Yvonne Chan, the school’s assistant principal.

Teachers have thought for decades that manipulating objects helps young students understand abstract concepts. Building blocks and other objects have been standard equipment in many classrooms.

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But the innovation at Sharp is the homework aspect of the concept. That is especially important for the school’s 1,200 students, many of whom, Chan said, come from low-income, “educationally disadvantaged” families with few learning resources.

At the same time, the educators are enlisting parents, other relatives and even schoolmates to help students with homework lessons, Chan said.

The grant was awarded in March, she said, but the program will not get fully under way until the fall, when the teachers have had time to develop more lessons, and the money becomes available.

Nevertheless, the first plastic-bag lesson went home with a kindergarten class last week.

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Each bag contained six plastic miniature dinosaurs, a “tar pit” drawn on a piece of paper and a series of math questions. One question read: “Six dinosaurs were thirsty. Three walked away to eat some leaves. How many stayed by the tar pit?”

A first-grade class helped parents and teachers put together the “Homebound Math Kits.” Then the first-graders and parents paired up with the younger students to explain the problems.

Next year, each class will help prepare lessons for the grades below. Part of the work will be putting together items to go in the bag.

Students who have worked with the kits were enthusiastic. Rita Ortega, 7, said she liked them better than regular homework because “you learn more things.”

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Victor Govea, also 7, said, “I like the shape” of the dinosaurs. “It’s boring homework,” he added, “but I like to do it.”

Other kits will include such things as dominoes, paper cutouts and toy animals, Chan said. The lessons will include math problems relating to Los Angeles history and social sciences, she said.

Older students’ homework bags will contain items in geometric shapes that can represent all sorts of things, Chan said. “A triangle can represent a space shuttle; a stick can represent population growth.”

In addition to the kits, teachers will work with parents so that they can help their children with the lessons, Chan said.

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“If the parent says, ‘You don’t have to do your homework,’ the child is going to lose,” said Ricardo Sosapavon, the school’s principal.

To help parents get involved, the school has been conducting free workshops. For the past two months, 22 parents, mostly women without jobs outside the home, have been going to the school twice a week for 2 1/2 hours a day, Chan said.

Much of the time in the workshops has been spent learning English. More than nine out of 10 students at the school are Latino, and many of their parents are illiterate in English or Spanish or both, Chan said.

During a session last week, nine women sat in undersized chairs at tables designed for 6-year-olds in the school library and learned to say “dinosaur” in English and to use the word in a sentence. The mothers also were given tips on how to help their youngsters with their homework.

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The women seemed pleased with the lessons.

‘She’ll Learn More’

Speaking of her first-grade daughter, Magdalena Valles said, “If I speak English, she’ll learn more.”

Maria Elena Aguila, 29, who has a daughter and a son in the school, said she enrolled in the workshops because they “help me to explain better” to her children.

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Besides, she said, “I wanted to let my children know that I have an interest in learning myself.”

Sosapavon said the school does not expect the parents of all 1,200 students enrolled to go to the school for training.

“But we do expect that the parent will take the time to sit down with the child for 15 or 20 minutes” and help with homework, he said. “If the parents understand what we’re trying to do, then they can support us at home.”

The project was one of 71 in California made possible by the state Education Initiative Fund, established by a consortium of eight businesses, most of them banks, Chan said. Last year, the fund awarded $700,000 in grants of up to $12,000 each.

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Chan said the program will continue as long as the 1,200 kits last. Students are asked to return the kits to be used by later classes.

Chan budgeted $1,000 to pay a teacher for the parent training. When that money runs out, she said, parents who have been through the program may take over that job.

One other school in the Valley, Sherman Oaks Elementary, received an $8,000 grant from the consortium. The money was used to set up a health-science lab in cooperation with Sherman Oaks Community Hospital, school Principal Sally Shane said.


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