Casey Starr remembers clearly the moment in junior high when a teacher told her that she obviously didn’t have any math aptitude. She took the comment to heart and spent years being apprehensive about math, until she took a leap of faith to become a Math Corps tutor in the fall of 2022.
After seeing an online ad, Casey decided to jump into tutoring. “I found out during my first phone interview that there was an open position in math,” Casey said. “I was hesitant, but I decided to give it a shot … I admit that I had a little spiteful moment of wanting to prove my former teacher wrong!”
Math Corps tutoring was a great option for Casey. “With my kids [ages 5 and 6] both in school, I was looking for something to do that would match up with their school schedule.” She started tutoring at Burnside Elementary School in Red Wing, which was embarking on its first year as a Math Corps school.
From memorizing to mastering
Brenda Houck, the instructional coach at Burnside, explained that the school has hosted Reading Corps tutors since 2012. Students’ success in Reading Corps spurred Burnside to add Math Corps after seeing a significant decline in math skills during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had been focused on reading, but when you look at the data it’s clear that kids are faring far worse in math,” Brenda said. “When the pandemic hit and the impact started to become clear, our principal was instrumental in getting Math Corps here.”
Math Corps tutors work with students during the school day, focusing on helping them move from rote memorization to a deep understanding of math concepts. Using scripted lessons, Casey models skills, guides students in learning to use them, and then challenges students to demonstrate the skills on their own.
Casey says that her students particularly love working with base 10 blocks, a 3-D tool that turns abstract math concepts into hands-on objects. “When kids can see and touch something as they count, that’s a big help,” she explained.
“It would have been really wonderful for me to have had a program like this as a kid,” she added. “My mom worked nights, so after-school tutoring wasn’t an option. If it didn’t click for me during the school day, it just didn’t click.”
At the start of the 2022-23 school year, the 24 second- and third-grade students Casey tutors were all at risk of falling behind in math proficiency. Just a few months later, half of them are assessed as low risk, two have graduated from the program and all students are continuing to make good progress.
And Casey says her own confidence has increased, too. “The fundamentals of every intervention are laid out so clearly, and the support from Brenda and the other tutors is amazing. As a new tutor you find out really quickly that you’re not in it alone. I joke with Brenda every now and then that I’m not used to such an overly healthy work environment!”
While Math Corps’ evidence-based interventions are scripted for tutors, knowing individual students’ learning styles helps Casey tailor her approach. “Some kids respond differently to different exercises, and some do better working with paper and pencil while some really love using the whiteboard.”
Tutors and students work together in the school library, where Houck’s office is located, so she has a close-up view of Casey’s interactions with students. The warm relationships Casey has built with students boost their motivation to learn, Brenda said. “We have several students who check in with me every morning to ask, ‘Is Ms. Starr here?’ Tutoring is their favorite part of the day.
“We’re so blessed to have Casey here; she’s wonderful at connecting with students and has a great way of giving feedback that engages them and helps them be accountable for their own progress. One second-grader she works with told me this week, ‘I’m so good at math!’”
Brenda and Casey are both excited that Casey will be back at Burnside as a Math Corps tutor next year. In fact, she plans to serve for all four years that she’s eligible. “I’m just all in on math now,” Casey said with a laugh.