Summer of 4 + 2

With students losing months of math skills once classes end, some educators are trying to help them make vacation count

Summer Math for All founder Christine Moynihan helps 14-year-old Lisa Peters (left) and Kristina Baldwin, 13, with math activities in Holliston. Summer Math for All founder Christine Moynihan helps 14-year-old Lisa Peters (left) and Kristina Baldwin, 13, with math activities in Holliston. (Photos By Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / July 31, 2011

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It used to be, the only math that students did during the summer involved counting snow cones, sandcastles, or surfboards.

The situation is changing, but more slowly than many educators would like.

There are a wide variety of math programs available during the summer for a price. And demand, at least anecdotally, appears to be on the rise.

But studies show that students still lose somewhere between one and three months of math skills over the summer, a problem that applies across the socioeconomic spectrum, suggesting that parents haven’t gotten the message, educators say.

“I don’t think there’s been an increase in awareness,’’ said Sarah Pitcock, an official with the National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore. “We see a lot of summer reading lists, but I don’t think we’ve seen a tipping point in terms of math loss awareness.’’

There’s wide variation in how area schools address math - if they do at all - as temperatures climb.

In Needham, elementary school teachers send information home, and post it online, so parents can help their children maintain math skills over the break.

“We work really closely with our elementary parents around mathematics in general,’’ said Theresa Duggan, the Needham district’s director of program development and implementation. “What we do during the summer, we extend it out to things parents can do in the house, day-to-day activities, that help maintain kids’ mathematical thinking.’’

Suggestions for students entering sixth grade, for example, include playing card games, finding the best buy at the grocery store, and calculating the tip at a restaurant. Even a long car ride can provide fodder for math games; just think of all those numbers on license plates.

This summer, Framingham High School has launched a math and English program aimed at students who are at risk of failing.

The school’s principal, Michael J. Welch, said that about 40 students, most of them incoming ninth-graders, are participating. The registration fee is $20 for each two-week session, but scholarships are available.

Funding comes from a grant through the Building Educational Success Together initiative, which is part of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit aimed at improving urban schools.

And students in higher-level math courses? Teachers “bury them’’ with homework over the summer, Welch said proudly.

“Yes, there is a high degree of ‘forgettery’ over the summer,’’ he said. “And I think we struggle to provide programs for kids in the school that are, a) looking to work and make money, and b) are watching all their more-affluent peers going to fun camps, and they see coming to school as more drudgery.’’

The Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough tackles summer learning loss through a software package called “Catchup Math.’’

The school recommends the program “for some people who might be doing fine, but they just want to make sure they haven’t forgotten things,’’ said math teacher Dilip Gandhi.

According to the National Summer Learning Association, most students nationwide lose about two months of “grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills’’ during the summer.

But in area communities, there are numerous private companies and tutors offering ways to fill the gap.

A few years ago, Newton resident Andrew Joseph was just another parent looking to prevent his children from going down the “summer slide.’’

Joseph and a former colleague from a software company did research and found that in wealthier communities such as Newton, Wellesley, and Weston, around 30 percent of parents were hiring a private tutor or investing in an after-school program to boost their children’s math skills.

In 2009, the duo formally launched TenMarks, a company that sells an online program to boost math skills. It offers summer packages for $39 and year-round packages for $99.

Students can ask for a series of hints to help them with a problem and can also watch video lessons. The idea is for students to be able to work on their own, even without an adult around, Joseph said.

“In a lot of the schools in the suburbs . . . there’s almost always a summer reading list, but quite often there isn’t any type of math practice assigned,’’ said Joseph. “All students, whether they come from a privileged or an inner-city background, experience learning loss in math.’’

Mary Mokris, education specialist for Kumon Math and Reading Centers, said there are simple things that parents can do to incorporate number skills.

For example, students can “chart’’ the number of bananas they eat over a period of time by peeling the stickers off and collecting them on a piece of paper.

“There are ways to make math fun,’’ she said. Classroom instruction at Kumon ranges nationally from $95 to $125 monthly per subject, with a $50 registration fee.

Jane Chiong, co-owner of the Kumon Math and Reading Centers in Newton and Belmont, takes a different approach.

Chiong insists anyone can be good at math, but she doesn’t promise entertainment.

“I said, ‘It’s not a video game, it’s not ballet, it’s not playing with dolls, it’s an academic thing.’ Then I got to the point where I said, ‘No, you’re not going to have fun.’ ’’

Christine Moynihan, a former teacher and principal with years logged in Natick, Wayland, and Newton, runs a summer camp in Holliston for students who want to bask in numbers and formulas. The weeklong Summer Math For All session costs $275 for tuition and $50 for materials.

Moynihan is against what she calls the “drill and kill’’ approach, and thinks math should count as fun.

So on a recent summer day, Moynihan, who is also a consultant for TenMarks, took her students on a field trip to the Natick Mall. There, her charges worked on assignments like finding sale items and calculating how much they could save.

Moynihan, who has a doctorate in curriculum and instruction with a math specialization, said math is about reasoning and process. She teaches students to “get the joke’’ presented by a math problem.

“I want them to see mathematics as more than just those timed tests.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at

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