Former teacher builds a business on games to teach kids math
Arlie Cobb burst into tears one afternoon last spring when her mother asked about her day at school.
Then in third grade, she had been ridiculed by classmates during her math lesson.
Arlie's mother, Christine Cobb, knew how her daughter felt. Math hadn't been her best subject in school, either. But Cobb was determined not to let Arlie struggle.
After checking out her options, Cobb signed Arlie up for after-school math lessons with Mango Math Group in Snohomish.
"She instantly loved it," Cobb said. "Within three or four weeks, I saw a complete change in her attitude about math."
Arlie's teachers noticed, too. They told her mother Arlie's confidence in math translated to a greater sense of self-esteem in other subjects.
Today, "Arlie's one of the better (math) students," her mother said.
Arlie isn't alone in having trouble with math.
In Washington, only 43 percent of fourth graders are proficient in math, according to a 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress report. About 57 percent of fourth graders had only basic or below-basic math skills.
The problem is gaining attention with employers in the state, like the Boeing Co., who worry about finding enough workers with sufficient math and science skills in the future.
Classroom overcrowding, teaching for standardized tests and a lack of help from parents at home all contribute to the problem for Washington students.
At Mango Math, founder Mary Curry takes a different approach: She tries to make math fun.
On a recent afternoon, Curry sat at one of the tables with Arlie and her friend, Ani Phibbs, who's also in fourth grade. Phibbs started taking math lessons not long after Arlie did.
Curry dealt each girl a playing card, face down. Arlie and Ani held their cards to their foreheads facing out.
"Twenty-three," Curry said.
Arlie and Ani glance at each other's card.
"Eleven," Arlie said.
"Twelve," Ani said.
Given the sum of their two cards, the girls use the other's number to guess her own. Whichever girl guesses first wins the hand. The one with the most cards at the end of the deck is the math winner for the lesson.
The Cobb family plays the game at home, Arlie's mother said.
"It's pretty fun," she said.
Curry spent about seven years as a teacher. For the past decade, she has written math curriculum for schools, doing so first at a nonprofit and then on her own at Mango.
"If you can get kids to do well in math, they'll do well in almost any other subject," Curry said.
One of the first schools to buy Curry's math lessons was Sky Valley Eduction Center in Monroe. The school has been using Mango's math curriculum for several years -- both in the classroom and as supplementary material for parents, said director Karen Rosencrans.
"It's not just another worksheet," she said.
The lessons align with state math requirements. Teachers like using the Mango lessons because everything they need -- teacher notes, math games -- comes packaged in a plastic sleeve, she said.
"Parents like it," Rosencrans said. "They find it easy to use."
More importantly, the students like it.
Curry's daughter, Andaya Sugayan, helps with after-school math tutoring at Mango. An 11th grader, Sugayan remembers her own experience in learning math in the fourth grade.
"At school, we were told things and just expected to remember them," Sugayan said. "They don't explain why or how things work."
Sugayan said she enjoys helping Mango students understand math, not just memorize it.
"You can see when things click for them," she said.
At the Mango shop in Snohomish, Sugayan and Ani played a game of Tic-Fact-Toe, using multiplication to string together a line on a tic-tac-toe board.
Curry steers Ani in for the win: "What makes 10?"
Ani: "Two and eight."
Curry: "We're doing multiplication."
"Oh, two and five," said Ani, smacking her forehead.
Mango Math not only tutors students but also trains teachers.
Curry estimates that Mango has 16 to 20 students on the after-school tutoring roster at any given time. Tutoring costs range from $25 to $30 an hour for elementary students, $30 to $40 for higher grades.
Teachers or schools can buy Curry's math crates, filled with lessons and games for classroom or after-school use. The crates are priced from $299 to $369 and are geared to kindergarten through eighth grade.
Parents also can buy individual student totes, which come with lessons and games, for $69. Lessons begin at the pre-kindergarten level and go through fifth-grade math.
Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mango Math Group
•Math curriculum, tutoring and learning games.
1024 First St., No. 102 Snohomish; 425-260-3221
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