How PTOs Foster Math Skills

Creative approaches to help schools focus on achievement in math and to improve math literacy.

by Evelyn Beck


Perhaps no other subject causes as much anxiety for parents as math. Not only did many of us struggle with it way back when, but today’s approach to teaching it seems as foreign as ancient Greek. No wonder, then, that many schools seek to boost student achievement in math—and the all-important annually improving standardized test scores necessary in the era of No Child Left Behind—by targeting moms and dads.

Math became a focal point at Deep Run Elementary School in Elkridge, Md., after math scores turned out to be much lower than reading scores. “We wanted to involve the parents, to help them understand how math is taught, because it’s different than when they went to school,” says Principal Fran Donaldson.

One tactic is interactive monthly family math projects that pull the math out of ordinary household activities. “If the parent is vacuuming, he or she can ask the child how long the living room is,” says Donaldson. “It they’re at a food store, the parent can ask about the cost per pound and ounce. If they’re going on a trip, the parent can ask how many miles they’re going and how many miles per gallon they get.”

Deep Run also brings in speakers who share information about how they use math in their work. A scientist discussed bone density and how this measurement could help determine whether surgery was necessary. And as part of the school’s partnership with Southwest Airlines, three pilots discussed how they use time and distance in their jobs.

Test results at Egremont Elementary School in Pittsfield, Mass., also showed a significant need in the area of math, says Principal Beth Sciavino-Narvaez. “It was an issue not only in our school but in our district and across the state,” she says. “The problem was not unique to our school.”

With enthusiastic support from its school council, which has strong parent representation, Egremont created a schoolwide focus on math through its family math education project, supported by a grant to purchase family game kits for at-home math reinforcement. The heart of the project was four family math nights, two to inform parents about the new math curriculum, two focused on games as a way to drive home basic skills.

With the “Angle Tangle,” for example, a child drew an angle with a protractor, and the parent had to guess how many degrees the angle was and then measure it; then they reversed roles. The PTO also supports the math curriculum by purchasing supplementals such as cubes and coins for hands-on learning and by sponsoring a preparation course for the state’s standardized testing.

Math became a focus for Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio-based Woodridge Primary Elementary School’s entire district back in the fall of 2002, with family math nights viewed as a good way to involve parents. That first year concentrated on two standards: measurements and number sense. In one activity, for example, second-graders used yarn to measure bodies, yielding all kinds of data, such as whether the bodies were squares or rectangles, how the lengths of the arms compared to the measurement from head to foot, and how circumferences of heads and other body parts compared.

The next year, two additional standards were added, geometry and mathematical processes, with activities such as a dominoes game where children counted dominoes as a prelude to addition and got to keep two dominoes. To build excitement about the evening, the school hosted an “I Scream for Math” pep rally (attended by a local reporter), served dinner, and awarded prizes. There was even bus transportation provided by the district. The result, says guidance counselor Pat Kennedy, was that “so many families came we couldn’t hold them all,” and the event had to be split up over two separate evenings.

Family Hat Night

A slightly different family math activity was Mad Hatter Measurement, hosted by the three Frederick Law Olmstead schools, P.S. 56, P.S. 64, and P.S. 67, in Buffalo, N.Y., where community service collided deliriously with math and lured reluctant parents to campus. “Because we’re an urban school, we wanted to show parents they didn’t have to be nervous to come into school, for they’re usually notified if something bad happens,” says Kathy Rua, formerly the director of programs for Olmstead’s Home and School Association. “Then we wanted to show parents who may not have a lot of schooling themselves a way they can help children.”

This particular activity grew out of a service project done by one gifted-and-talented teacher who had students make hats and scarves for the needy one Christmas; the kids loved the hats and scarves so much that they wanted to keep them. For the schoolwide event, families came in and measured and sewed the hats with help from a measurement booklet (some parents had cut the felt in advance). And since the event fell on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, parents received blue paper clouds on which they wrote down a dream they had for their own children; these clouds were later hung in the school hallway. Dinner was also served, bringing the cost for the evening to about $300.

Math also has figured into other activities at Olmstead. On Winter Fun Night, for instance, children were invited to take an empty water bottle, fill it with water, then add food coloring and sprinkles and two dice, giving them a new math toy. Older children folded paper pages into halves and quarters to make journals.

For demonstrating math at work, few can top a project called “Beat Pete” at Kennedy Junior High School in Lisle, Ill. In partnership with a local moving company, sixth-graders spent a day with a salesperson who was seeing clients to give estimates. Students estimated the weight and cost for a moving job, trying to beat the salesperson, who had won the “Most Accurate Estimator” title among 2,000 of his peers. Those with the closest estimates received prizes, but all benefited with a new understanding of why math matters.

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