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‘Math tutoring on steroids’ aims to help troubled Chicago teens, muscle out crime

James Millar math tutor from University Chicago Crime Lab's program working with student Harper High School Friday May 10 2013.

James Millar, math tutor from University of Chicago Crime Lab's program, working with student at Harper High School, Friday, May 10, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 14, 2013 6:05AM

Math kills crime.

That’s the result researchers expect from a program that combines “math tutoring on steroids” with sports-based mentoring for troubled teens in Chicago.

About 50 boys at Harper High School in Englewood have taken part in the program since the school year began in fall 2012.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab, which is piloting the program, found that school misconduct, absenteeism and course failures plummeted.

Based on a 67 percent reduction in school misconduct in a comparative trial from November through January, the researchers predict declines in violent crime arrests among the students over the next one to two years of 50 to 60 percent — and a drop in drug-related arrests of 40 to 50 percent.

Many of the students were more than four years academically behind their grade level.

“There’s nothing that stops a bullet better than a high-school diploma,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the crime lab.

“But if you’re in 10th grade and can’t do a third-grade math problem, what hope do you have to get a diploma? If you can’t do 25 percent of 12, you aren’t getting anything out of class,” he said.

The MacArthur Foundation has committed $1 million to expanding the combination of math tutoring and the mentoring program, which is called Becoming a Man — Sports Edition, or BAM, which is run by a Chicago nonprofit agency called Youth Guidance. A private source has pledged another $1 million and additional funding is being sought.

The crime lab plans to expand the program over the next school year to include 500 boys in a dozen Chicago public schools — mostly high schools.

Earlier this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to pump $2 million into BAM, which uses Olympic sports and counseling to improve at-risk students’ attitudes about school. But that’s separate from the combination math and BAM approach the University of Chicago is piloting at Harper High School.

The University of Chicago previously announced that academic performance improved among the students receiving the once-a-day math tutoring plus BAM. But the finding that math tutoring is expected to reduce crime among the students is new.

The crime lab found the combination of math tutoring and BAM mentoring improved academic performance and reduced misconduct more than the BAM program in isolation, Ludwig noted.

“For 40 years, we’ve had a lock ’em up approach for these kids,” Ludwig said. “What is exciting about BAM and (the math tutoring) is that it overturns the idea that we should write these teens off.”

The tutoring is modeled on the MATCH Education charter schools in Boston. MATCH-style math tutoring has already proven effective in the Houston public schools and in other school systems, Ludwig said.

The University of Chicago plans to hire 38 tutors for the expanded combination math and BAM program next year. Already, 200 people have applied for the jobs. MATCH will provide 10 employees to supervise the tutors.

“Suburban kids have positive affiliations — sports and families and clubs. Inner city kids typically don’t. We’re building relationships between adults and students that help leverage their academic effort and their behavioral improvement,” said Alan Safran, president of MATCH Tutors.

In Houston, MATCH-style math tutoring produced two to four years of academic improvement for every year of tutoring, based on a study by a Harvard economist, said Safran, a former deputy commissioner of education in Massachusetts and a former aide to the late U.S. Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) “We have never had a partner on the non-academic, non-cognitive side,” he said of including BAM in the program in Chicago.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab envisions 10,000 to 25,000 students could eventually take part in the program, depending on the results of next year’s combination of math tutoring and BAM mentoring.

James Millar, a 25-year-old tutor at Harper, said he’s seen major improvements among his students.

“For the most part, our students couldn’t even add integers effectively. They struggled with a question like ‘what is 7 plus 8?’ ”

Millar, a University of Illinois graduate, said his students have been studying fractions and decimals. But he said they sometimes have to stop to learn more basic math concepts they missed in their early education.

“You feel like you are working against the clock,” Millar said. “But this year I had far more achievements than frustration.”

He believes many of his students have never worked 45 minutes straight on any academic task.

“You work three minutes straight one day, five minutes the next and build up their stamina,” he said.

So how does that translate into less crime?

“A lot of these students have met goals like getting on the honor roll,” Millar said. “If you are on the street and you have a goal, it will make you think twice about engaging in behaviors that will prevent you from achieving those goals.”

One of his students, Ronald Liggon, said the combination of BAM and math tutoring changed his life.

In BAM, the students discuss each other’s problems and help each other out, Ronald said. They also learn athletic skills. They’re currently training to box, said the 16-year-old sophomore from Englewood.

Ronald said he’s always enjoyed math. He is currently working with the tutors on the Pythagorean theorem used to calculate the length of a right triangle’s sides.

“I learned that in seventh grade, but it was a challenge to me. Not anymore,” Ronald said.

His goal is to get As in every one of his classes this semester.

“I used to clown around in class,” he said. “Not now. I love it.”

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