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Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

Three siblings’ answer to low math scores in their hometown

Why We Wrote This

When the McElroy siblings learned that their childhood school district was scoring low on reading and math, they founded 4RealMath: An organization that recruits older tutors who can serve as mentors.

Courtesy of 4RealMath
Marian McElroy tutors a 4RealMath participant.

This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which created the Generation to Generation (Gen2Gen) campaign, inviting those in midlife and beyond to connect with young people who need champions. 

I was at an education conference in 2007 when a professor from DePaul University showed test scores that put North Chicago, the wonderful school district I grew up in, at rock bottom in reading and math. I was shocked and embarrassed. A punch in the gut would have felt better.

I knew I had to do something, so I called my two younger brothers. Our parents had moved us to North Chicago when we were in elementary school. We all received a good education, and I went on to Howard University and then Northwestern University’s law school. I practiced law for nearly 25 years.

Both of my brothers were engineers and had worked on various projects involving science, technology, engineering, and math. I told them what was going on in North Chicago and said, “Our community needs your help.” We did a ton of research and worked together to develop a curriculum that became the 4RealMath program.

We wanted to focus on helping underserved middle-schoolers who struggle with math. We knew that middle school is a critical time to intervene.

In 2008, we piloted our first 4RealMath project with the middle school we’d all attended. The principal there loved the idea. He procured the initial funds needed and said, “We don’t have enough time after school, but we can do this before school.”

We worried that children wouldn’t show up at 7 a.m., but we went ahead and sent out notices to parents. When about 20 students showed up, we were ecstatic! Some of the parents had coordinated carpools, because it was before the school bus picked the children up. Other students arrived by taxi.

We proceeded with implementing 4RealMath projects in other schools as well as park districts and summer programs. We’ve concentrated on reviewing basic skills for the students, going over material they didn’t understand in class. We’ve also emphasized problem-solving, doing real-world exercises. 

So far, the program has involved more than 500 students in Illinois, Wisconsin, and California. To help gauge student achievement, we’ve used a basic skills assessment. One group of children, for example, had an average score of 63 percent on the test at the beginning of the year. By the end of the year, the average score was 84 percent.

This summer, we plan to implement a pilot project that has a small group setting. We’ll put two students with one tutor who can act as a mentor. Such an arrangement showed promising results in a University of Chicago study.

We’ve focused on recruiting tutors age 50 or older because we feel they can bring more to the table, particularly on the mentoring side of things. One such volunteer had taught for a number of years and was good with behavior management. During one summer project, we had problems with some of the students and their attendance. This volunteer was familiar with many parents in the community and went to their homes to speak with them about the importance of the project. She was successful in getting students to return.

To get children to have agency over their work takes an adult who knows the world that’s waiting out there – who can say, “This is why you need to know this.” A lot of young people need someone they feel is in their corner, people they know won’t give up on them.

For more, visit 4realmath.org. The 4RealMath program was a semifinalist in last year’s Gen2Gen Encore Prize competition, which highlights new ideas that can bring generations together.

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