Earlier this year, Katie Almgren was like a lot of schoolteachers.
She had her subjects she felt comfortable teaching, and she had the one she didn’t like as much: math.
But Almgren, a second-grade teacher at Omaha’s Indian Hill Elementary School, wasn’t planning on going back to school again; she already had a master’s degree in elementary education.
Last week, though, thanks to a grant from two Omaha foundations, Almgren was taking free, graduate-level courses to become a better math teacher.
The Sherwood Foundation and the Lozier Foundation have partnered to give a $5.5 million grant to help improve math student achievement in the Omaha Public Schools.
The three-year grant, which was announced Monday, aims to boost student achievement by boosting their teachers’ education. It is paying for:
» At least 140 K-3 teachers to take six classes in math instruction.
» 64 grades 4-8 teachers to get their master’s degrees in math instruction.
» 360 spots for K-12 teachers to take various classes in math instruction.
Faculty from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other area colleges are teaching the graduate-level classes with help from OPS’s best math teachers.
The students — OPS teachers — don’t have to travel far, either. All the classes are being taught at the OPS’s central offices, 3215 Cuming St.
The grant also will fund eight OPS math coaching positions and pay for UNL researchers to examine what good the grant does, including its effects on student achievement.
“We can’t say enough about math skills,” OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said Monday.
Evans and UNL officials, including Chancellor Harvey Perlman, attended Monday’s announcement at OPS headquarters.
OPS has struggled, compared with other Nebraska districts, on state math tests. For example, about 59 percent of OPS third-graders scored proficient or better on the state math test last year. Statewide, that number was almost 72 percent. The district also has more students who live in poverty compared with most Nebraska districts. Those students typically perform worse than their more-affluent peers.
Math struggles, though, happen in most districts. Students across the state consistently perform better on state reading tests than they do on state math tests.
In fact, Nebraska math teachers, including 75 OPS instructors, have been taking classes for the past four years to help get better at teaching math, all paid for with $18 million in federal grants UNL has received.
Almost all of those grant dollars, though, had been spent or were close to being spent, said Jim Lewis, a UNL math professor and director of the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education.
The new grant dollars will continue to fund Primarily Math for K-3 teachers, Math in the Middle (the master’s degree program) for grades 4-8 teachers and individual classes. But instead of teachers across the state taking such courses, only OPS teachers will enroll.
Teachers who have gone through the Primarily Math program have boosted achievement levels of their students, Lewis said, according to an early review of data from those classrooms.
With the new grant, he and other researchers expect to learn a lot more about how students of those K-3 teachers perform academically compared with their peers in other classrooms. Researchers have no such data on teachers in grades 4-8.
In Evans’ 32 years in education, he said, he has been in “umpteen” meetings in which a teacher has said he or she isn’t comfortable teaching math. Evans said he used to wonder how that teacher’s students felt about math if their teacher felt that way.
That’s what led Almgren, the Indian Hill Elementary teacher, to apply for the program. She struggled with math as a student and didn’t particularly enjoy teaching it.
Now she’s learning how to teach the theory and the basics of the different concepts she teaches, including addition, subtraction and properties of “greater than” and “less than.”
With the extra help she’s getting, she expects her students to do better in future years as well.