Homedale kids beg to come to school on their day off

HOMEDALE — Even though there is no school here on Fridays, a group of 50 junior high students spends the morning inside Homedale Middle School working on math problems.

Those are the lucky ones.

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About 50 children participate in Homedale’s Math Minds Academy program on Fridays when school is closed.

There’s also a waiting list of another 25 or so kids who would gladly give up a morning of sleeping in, Internet surfing and video games to work on fractions and ratios.

So what’s gotten into these kids in this rural, Owyhee County-based school district?

A year ago, fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Alamilla decided she wanted to do something about her students’ lagging math skills.

A member of the Teach for America program who was then in her first year of teaching, Alamilla noticed students were already behind when they walked through her door on the first day of school. She observed significant gaps in their skill when it came to basics such as adding, subtracting and place values.

Statewide, math achievement is a cause for concern that has perplexed state education leaders despite years of heavy investment in the Idaho Math Initiative.

Alamilla was seeing the same things in Homedale.

“It wasn’t one or two students (who struggled),” she said. “It was the majority.”

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Homedale students receive instruction in skills students did not master in prior grades and current subject they are working on this year.

So Alamilla, principal Amy Winters and state and federal programs director Christine Ketterling put their heads together.

Homedale is one of 43 districts that follows a four-day school week. Alamilla decided to test an intensive math remediation program on Fridays, when the schools are otherwise shuttered.

She called the experiment Math Madness and volunteered to show up on her day off.

So did 50 students.

During the middle of a driving snowstorm.

“I knew that if kids would come this day, they would keep coming,” Alamilla said.

“Throughout the rest of the year kids were like ‘Can we please come to school Friday?’” she continued. “Whenever kids are begging to come to school, that’s probably a good thing.”

Based on last year’s success, Ketterling wrote a grant and allowed Alamilla to design a Friday school program that would meet three weeks a month this year.

The State Department of Education grant provides for bus service for the students, who are selected based on math achievement results. But it doesn’t provide enough to feed the students, who were arriving hungry anticipating a meal.

Although food isn’t in the budget, the school is providing breakfast in hopes that a business or donor will step in to cover costs of feeding the students.

In addition to Alamilla, math teacher Andrea Ratkowski also volunteered to teach Friday school, which the students voted to rename Math Minds Academy.

The teachers offer a specific skill-based program for their students. They pair computerized software offered through the Khan Academy and in-person instruction delivered by Alamilla and Ratkowski.

The focus is on breaking down the skills students have not mastered in previous grades and mixing in standards they need to know in math class right now.

Isaac, a fifth-grader, spent last Friday honing his rounding and place value skills. When he grows up, Isaac wants to be a video game designer, so he knows he will need strong math skills.

“It’s really fun and sometimes you feel like you’re discovering new things in your school,” Isaac said.

The program is in its infancy, but Alamilla is optimistic that student achievement will increase.

She also saw something encouraging two weeks ago.

When she tested students, 98 percent of them said they believe in themselves and believe the Math Minds Academy will help them reach their goals.

Superintendent Rob Sauer said he is proud of the students and teachers for volunteering to come in. The teachers are paid for the extra time, Sauer said, “but it’s not necessarily a lot.”

“It’s pretty exciting to see students when they take an interest in their own learning and they want to be there and they want to participate,” Sauer said. “Giving up a part of their Friday to do it, that says a lot.”

Want to help?

Homedale Middle School doesn’t have the funding to provide food for students who participate in Math Minds Academy on Friday, when school is not in session, Sauer and Alamilla said. So far this year, the school has fronted the costs to provide breakfast, even though there is no money in the budget to do so. Any business or individuals who would like to help sponsor food for the students may call the Homedale School District office at (208) 337-4611 or Homedale Middle School at (208) 337-5780.