As a math education professor, Sandi Cooper spends most of her time with Baylor University students who are working to become teachers. This summer, though, she has been helping pre-kindergartners learn basic math skills in a collaborative pilot program.

The concept for the program came together in the fall, and Cooper launched the first Math for Early Learners Academy this month with the support of Baylor’s School of Education, Waco Independent School District, college students and parents.

The four-week camp, which ends Thursday at Baylor’s Mayborn Museum, provides 4- and 5-year-olds with a basic number sense before they start kindergarten.

“Over the years, I’ve read a lot of literature and done a lot of research on how building that foundation is important,” Cooper said. “While I prepare teachers and work with teachers out in the field, I really wanted to organize something that would impact children directly outside of school time.”

Through hands-on activities, games and assessments with everything from iPads to playdough and flash cards, the children learn to understand basic concepts, including how five isn’t just a number — it could be five apples, or three oranges and two bananas — or how to understand one more than or one less than a number, Cooper said.

“It’s great because we’re here at Baylor University, and that’s one of the things I wanted,” Cooper said. “It’s a new and

exciting environment for them because they’re not at their school or a church or community center, which they may have been to before.”

This year’s program is serving students who will start at Brook Avenue Elementary School in the fall, Cooper said.

Every weekday morning, except Fridays, about 15 children meet with four upcoming Baylor seniors hired as teacher assistants from the School of Education, plus a master teacher and graduate students in math education, Cooper said.

The program also offers college students a chance to earn some bonus field experience before they start a yearlong internship.

“Pre-K, kindergarten and first grade are core years for really gaining a solid foundation for math and reading,” Brook Avenue Principal Sarah Pedrotti said. “When I heard about this program, I thought this was wonderful, because the kids have the opportunity to continue that learning in the summer. And not only are they continuing it, they’re getting that foundation for math in kindergarten.”

Summer months

The program is tackling “summer learning loss,” which is when students experience a disconnect in their understanding of material because they are not staying focused on academics through the summer months, Pedrotti said.

She attended several days of the program throughout the month and said seeing her students’ eyes light up when they understand a new concept is her favorite part.

One day in particular, two Baylor football players came to visit. The players, Travon Blanchard and Taylor Young, broke down math concepts in terms of football scenarios, Pedrotti said.

“We have several pre-K boys who play football. It was really neat to watch these boys realize they had to do math in football — that was the ‘aha’ moment,” Pedrotti said. “It’s very apparent, the growth I’ve seen. I’m not there every day, but I take the kids off the bus in the afternoon and eat lunch with them. I make them give me a rundown of their day and reflect on their day, and you can just see the growth. And it instills more confidence in them as well.”

The feedback Cooper has received from parents has reflected that growth as well, she said, referring to a parent night hosted last week.

“There were a few times I got to visit with some of the parents, and I got teary-eyed because they talked about some of the differences they could see in their children,” Cooper said. “One mother said her child started sharing some candy, counting it out with the family, saying, ‘You get one, you get one and you get one.’ The other thing I’ve been pleased with is how the parents say their child is talking a lot more and is so excited to come and how they’ve really grown as far as their social abilities. And we’ve noticed that as well.”

Bilingual teaching

Baylor senior Alexandria McDonald said she has seen that growth up close in the past month as one of the teaching assistants. With her heart set on bilingual teaching, she wants to help students struggling with English as a second language, McDonald said.

Cooper was her professor in junior year and encouraged her to apply for the teaching position with the Math for Early Learners Academy, she said. The past four weeks have been filled with both the students and teachers learning, she said.

“They work with dot cards that kind of look like dice, and my students started out counting the dots every single time. Just last week, one of my students said, ‘Oh, that’s four,’ ” McDonald said. “With that repetition and practice, where they keep counting the four, and now are starting to get it by just looking at it and going, ‘That’s four,’ without having to count every single dot. It’s a big success.”

As for next year, with the continued support from Baylor’s School of Education, Cooper hopes to expand the program, she said.

“What we hope to do is host this each summer and have these same children come back for two more summers, all the way up to second grade, to fill in the gaps or get those experiences,” Cooper said. “Our whole goal is to develop more numerical fluency, so that it’s more than just counting. People get excited about children being able to count from one to 100, and think that’s a major accomplishment. That’s great the children know the sequence, but there’s so much more to it than that.”

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