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S.C. students could get a math boost from Algebra Nation online program

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Algebra help

In this March file photo, algebra teacher Kelly Young helps freshman Alex Cornell during class at North Charleston High. South Carolina students could one day get help in algebra from an online program called Algebra Nation. File/Staff

South Carolina students looking for help on their algebra homework might one day turn to a dedicated online community with video tutorials, peer advice forums and live help from adult experts.

State and local education officials have been in talks to bring a website and smartphone app called Algebra Nation to public school students. A product of the University of Florida's Lastinger Center for Learning, the program has shown promising results after being rolled out to every school district in Florida.

According to data provided by Lastinger Center officials to a Charleston County School Board committee meeting Monday night, Florida schools that participated in Algebra Nation had an 83-percent pass rate on the state's algebra end-of-course exam, compared to 63 percent at schools that did not use the program.

Students who participate can ask for help from each other on a Facebook-style "wall," earn "Karma Points" toward iPad giveaways by helping each other out and — perhaps most importantly — get online support after school hours from a team of seven study experts.

"They have different approaches," said Lastinger Center Associate Director Phil Poekert. "We have one who's an advanced mathematics student at the University of Florida, and he moves through the stuff really quick. He's high-energy, he's fun. Students really like him. We've sent them out to schools around Florida for end-of-course exams, and they're all greeted like pop stars. It's pretty wild."

In Charleston County, 89 percent of students already pass the state's end-of-course exam for Algebra I or Math for the Technologies 2. But Charleston County Schools Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait has been critical of the state-created test, pointing to low performance on national tests. By comparison, only about one-third of Charleston County juniors met the college-ready benchmark on the ACT, according to the most recent available data.

Lastinger Center leaders said they hope state lawmakers approve buying access for every Algebra I student in the state, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million. Failing that, Postlewait said she had explored the possibility of a pilot program involving Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester county schools.

The Lastinger Center has already been active in Charleston County, providing training to literacy coaches this fall on a $350,000 contract as part of the district's planned literacy overhaul. The school board cut funds for the district's literacy intervention program by one-third this school year, citing diminishing returns in literacy improvement.

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has met with Lastinger Center Director Don Pemberton to discuss Algebra Nation and other initiatives from Florida like Take Stock in Children, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring and scholarship opportunities to students from low-income families, according to S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown.

Brown said any Algebra Nation pilot program in South Carolina would have to be tailored to the state's College- and Career-Ready Standards.

"(Superintendent Spearman) is supportive of the program and the outcomes they are generating in Florida," Brown said. "We have not, however, gotten to the point of discussing a formal ask of the General Assembly."

In meetings Monday, the Charleston County School Board also voted to sign a resolution in favor of a recommendation from state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, that the state use $24 million from a massive Volkswagen pollution settlement to buy 300 new school buses for the state fleet. The state owns and maintains the majority of the bus fleet, which has reached an average age of 15.5 years and is long overdue for replacement.

Executive Director of Transportation Jeff Scott said late buses had caused students to miss 2,084 hours of instructional time so far this school year. Bus breakdowns accounted for about one-fifth of those lost instructional hours. Other leading causes for late buses were traffic, lack of drivers and drivers being assigned double routes. The schools where students had missed the most instructional hours were Pinehurst Elementary (441 hours), North Charleston Elementary (405 hours) and Garrett High (290 hours).

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.