For a young student, hanging out with pro athletes, going on private stadium tours and documentary screenings, or being tutored by NBA All-Stars are all great motivators. “Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that we are asking them to do more math after a full day of school,” said Athletes Committed to Educating Students (ACES) Executive Director Christina Saunders.
Another reality is that math skills are important for everyday life and success in school. If a kid is not proficient at math in 9th grade, they are less likely to graduate high school or go to college.
ACES, just north of Dinkytown on Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis, is a nonprofit tutoring program focusing on fourth- to eighth-grade students. The organization’s paid educators teach students after school and during the summer, getting them caught up and strengthening their math skills before high school. Classes are held at Twin Cities Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA community centers — places with plenty of space for classes and activities.
The math curriculum, designed in-house and consistent with state school standards, is built around sports. Math problems are all sports-themed. Students also go on field trips to stadiums and meet with pro athletes, and, sometimes, athletes come to the classroom and help tutor. ACES is partnered with the Minnesota Wild, Minnesota United, Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Minnesota Lynx and Minnesota Twins.
In the 2017-18 school year, ACES enrolled 700 students. It costs $5 to enroll at Boys and Girls Clubs classes, and around $20 at the YMCA like the location in North Minneapolis.
“A common term is that a student is ‘disengaged’ or a ‘problem kid,’” said Saunders. “Why are they disengaged? Why don’t they want to participate? Typically, that has to do with confidence.”
Math problem-solving skills and general problem-solving ability require perseverance. A student has to believe they will be able to get through it. That lack of confidence, noted Saunders, results in kids fearing failure solving a math problem.
Soon the student falls behind. It’s really hard to catch up. Failure suddenly feels like a give-in.
“That’s the message they get from the outside world,” said Saunders. Ninety-one percent of the kids in ACES qualify for federal lunch aid. Ninety percent of students are of color and 63 percent of them are black. These students have to overcome “barriers that they have through no fault of their own.”
A large part of the curriculum involves bolstering social-emotional skills. The program was founded in 1994 by Dr. Rajiv Shah who, while seeing the light at the end of the tunnel during the end of medical school, realized his bright future was made possible through good schooling. Ever since, the program has been dedicated to helping those that need the most attention with a solid education foundation.
A great way to get kids to do anything, from the most disadvantaged to the most privileged, is through their passions. And both boys and girls really like sports, said Saunders.
ACES includes a large smattering of sports in its curriculum. Students enjoy experiences and learning about the more popular sports like basketball and football. A recent class field trip was to the St. Paul Saints’ CHS FIELD where students took a private tour, watched batting and pitching practice, and talked with athletes.
NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler, while still playing for the Timberwolves, visited a class, spending a total of about two hours with students last fall. He gave a lecture in which he emphasized how important math is to his life and participated in the day’s math practices and activities.
“Teachers or their parents can tell them all day long,” said Saunders, a former teacher herself. “But to hear it from somebody like him?”
But ACES also features sports that many of the black and brown students aren’t always as familiar with, like curling and golf. There was a week-long golf unit where students used math to build part mini-golf, part obstacle courses.
A field trip with the Minnesota Wild to watch a screening of a documentary about black hockey players — Kwame Mason’s “The Color of Hockey” — ended with an 11-year-old student asking ACES teachers about playing the sport.
“The Wild adopted him,” said Saunders. The team outfitted him with pads and enrolled him in hockey clinics.
The students take these experiences to heart and, guided by ACES staff, carry the momentum into their schoolwork. Many fourth graders starting in the program become so energized and engaged that they stay all four years. ACES recently piloted a Youth Advisory Council in which students form a council, hold meetings — even observe classes — and make recommendations to their teachers.
Some recommendations are thoughtful and ingenious, said Saunders. Unsurprisingly, a popular recommendation from the kids is for more snacks.
Kids and their potential heading into ACES programs emerge as burgeoning difference-makers ready to take on higher education and the world. The mother of one student thanked the ACES educators and their pro athlete partners, adding that the success of any student takes a village.
In ACES’ village, there are world-renowned athletes. It can cost as little as $5 to enter the gate. “To feel like we’re not alone, we’re doing this together, and important people think this is important,” said Saunders, “that’s powerful.”