UST professors part of 'dream team' of educators who will help boost math skills at inner-city Catholic schools

UST professors part of 'dream team' of educators who will help boost math skills at inner-city Catholic schools

The development of critically important math skills will get a boost at 15 mostly inner-city Catholic schools thanks to two large grants and help from a "dream team" of some of Minnesota's top mathematics educators.

The two grants -- one for $151,284 from the 3M Foundation and another for $202,000 from an anonymous donor -- will underwrite what is called the Data-Driven Improvement of Mathematics Instruction (DDIMI) project.

Scheduled to begin this month, the project is a joint effort of the 3M Foundation, the anonymous donor, the University of St. Thomas, the 15 urban Catholic schools, and an organization called FOCUS (Friends of Catholic Urban Schools).

The five educators leading the project have been dubbed the "dream team" by Barbara Kaufmann, director of the 3M Foundation, for their expertise and service to mathematics education in Minnesota.

"This project not only will directly help thousands of inner-city school children," Kaufmann said, "but the university-level mathematics and education courses will benefit from the interactions between university faculty, inner-city schools and children. This will greatly impact the region's future teachers who earn their degrees at St. Thomas’ School of Education."

The DDIMI team will be led by Dr. Lucy Payne, the interim associate dean for assessment and accreditation in St. Thomas' College of Applied Professional Studies. Co-director of the project is Dr. Melissa Loe, an associate professor of mathematics at St. Thomas and former vice president of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

They will be joined by Anne Bartel, who recently retired after a 35-year career in the Minneapolis Public Schools and is past president of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics; Nancy Nutting, who has 37 years of experience in education and is a former executive director of SciMathMN, a statewide coalition of educators and business partners who work for high-quality math education; and Sharon Stenglein, a longtime middle school, high school and college mathematics teacher who worked as the math specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education from 1990 until her retirement in 2001. Since then she has served as a consultant in math education in many states.

"The time to build a solid math foundation is in the elementary grades," Payne said. "It is a foundation that will allow students to pursue more advanced studies in mathematics, technology and science in high school and college, and it is a foundation that can lead to a wealth of career opportunities."

The DDIMI is similar to a FOCUS-organized project now underway to improve literacy and language-acquisition skills at the 15 schools, which include a growing number of Asian, Hispanic, African and African American students. The literacy project is funded through a $339,040 grant from the same anonymous donor.

FOCUS, which began operations in June 2006, is affiliated with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis but is an independent, nonprofit organization. Its executive director, Thomas McCarver, is former dean of education at the University of St. Thomas and former superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

The 15 FOCUS schools are Ascension, Pope John Paul II, St. Elizabeth Seton, San Miguel and Risen Christ in Minneapolis; Trinity, St. Mathew, St. Agnes, St. Francis-St. James, St. Bernard and St. Peter Claver in St. Paul; St. Michael in West St. Paul; St. Raphael in Crystal; Sacred Heart in Robbinsdale; and Blessed Trinity in Richfield.

For the DDIMI project the researchers initially will concentrate on six of the 15 FOCUS schools: Pope John Paul II and San Miguel Middle School, from Minneapolis; St. Agnes and St. Francis-St. James from St. Paul; St. Michael from West St. Paul; and Sacred Heart from Robbinsdale.

The DDIMI team and the schools' principals and teachers will use what is called a "data-driven decision-making process" to evaluate needs and to help teachers and students identify and achieve math goals. Faculty and administrators will learn how to collect and use data to continuously improve their teaching methods and continue the work of the grant after the 18-month project concludes in June 2010.

Another $250,000 in grant funds will be sought for the second phase of the project, implementing the research findings at the remaining 9 FOCUS schools.

The FOCUS program grew out of a three-year discussion on the strengths and challenges of the 15 schools, McCarver explained. He added that the schools are continuing the work of Archbishop John Ireland, who encouraged the development of parish-based elementary schools as far back as the 1800s to serve the immigrant population flowing into Minnesota.

The schools are experiencing significant changes, some dating to the 1960s. Back then, 95 percent of the teachers were nuns; today, nuns represent only about 1 percent of the faculty. The other major shift is the racial, ethnic, economic and even religious mix found in Catholic schools throughout the Twin Cities.

"While many of the students attending our FOCUS schools are not Catholic," McCarver noted, "they come from families that value the faith-centered education and safe, nurturing environment provided by the Catholic schools."

One way the FOCUS program is helping the 15 schools is by raising funds from foundations and other sources to help with the students’ tuition. Another way is to underwrite efforts that help the schools maintain their tradition of academic excellence and to prepare students for success in high school, college and careers.