Research Facility Gives Kids with Special Needs a Fun Challenge

By Candice Russell
The Miami Herald

On a recent Friday, 12 math-challenged second-graders at an unusual school in Plantation were eagerly jumping up and down in their seats to solve math problems.

One by one, the children deliberated at the blackboard in Brandi Parsell’s class, trying to decide whether a circle, square or triangle should be placed on the board next to solve a puzzle. A correct answer brought screams of delight from triumphant students.

The children with special needs are being served in a free program at the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science, an independent teaching and educational research facility normally geared to gifted and accelerated students in elementary and secondary school.

To recruit the students, who come from all over Broward, Parsell said, “We sent fliers to public schools. All the students scored in the 40th to 70th percentile on the Stanford Achievement Test. They come twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes.”

Parsell, vice president of the affiliate program at IMACS, was herself a student of the program before becoming an eighth-grade and high-school math teacher. She knows the program for these struggling second-graders works because of experience.

“Last year we were asked by a charter middle school, the Downtown Academy of Technology and Arts in Fort Lauderdale, to teach classes there because scores on the FCAT were ‘F,’ ” she said. “The scores improved to an ‘A’ grade within one year.”

Parsell is hopeful about what mastering math can do for the children.

No Antipathy
“They’re still too young to form a real solid attitude or hatred of math,” she said. “If they’re taught well, they learn thinking, logic and reasoning. They build confidence, which translates to every part of their lives. They become better problem solvers, more independent and can think on their feet.”

Parents have noticed the changes in their kids and told the IMACS staff.

“They tell me they can’t believe how the attitudes of their kids have changed, ” said Parsell. “This is in addition to their getting higher test scores.”

What’s the secret of the teaching method?

“We use a proprietary curriculum in development over 40 years,” said Parsell, who hopes to offer the program to needy children in more grade levels this fall. “The lessons are carefully scripted.”

“We use very advanced concepts incorporated in games or puzzles. The children don’t even realize they’re learning. The neat thing is how fun it is,” she said. “Girls especially, when they’re young, they get intimidated. In class I’ve seen great things from them.”

Stereotypes Persist
“Old gender stereotypes about girls not wanting to appear smarter than boys still apply,” said Parsell.

“That’s why it is important to get them enrolled as young as possible, to counteract any stereotype, so they don’t have to be afraid of being good at math,” she said.

This article originally published March 25, 2007, and has been republished with permission.