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Kids and seniors together add up to something special

Langley Middle School sixth-graders Anne Madsen, Julia Houser and Lizzy Hanzelka show off some of the certificates they received for 100-percent success on math tests in teacher Sandy Gilbert’s class. - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
Langley Middle School sixth-graders Anne Madsen, Julia Houser and Lizzy Hanzelka show off some of the certificates they received for 100-percent success on math tests in teacher Sandy Gilbert’s class.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

LANGLEY — When the students at Langley Middle School needed a little help with their math skills, they turned to a ready source: retired seniors.

“They’ve really helped us understand math,” said sixth- grader Julia Houser. Her friends Anne Madsen and Lizzy Hanzelka explained how the folks from the Seabiscuits Club crashed through the arithmetic barrier.

“They broke the subject down into pieces so we could do it easier,” Anne said.

For Lizzy, it was all about speed.

“By going slower, it helped me understand how to subtract decimals, which was very hard for me,” she added.

How well they’ve learned to cope with the numbers challenge was much in evidence recently in Sandy Gilbert’s math class.

A total of 400 certificates were awarded denoting

100 percent achievement in basic math skills. The awards were handed out by members of the Seabiscuit Club, a group of volunteers who give their time, patience, understanding and knowledge to help students succeed.

“I have 15 to 20 adult volunteers that help out either in the classroom or at close range,” Gilbert said. “They practice with them and practice with them and practice with them so they can pass tests in basic multiplication facts plus adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions and decimals.”

Students test when they feel ready and retest until they get 100 percent on all nine tests; no calculators are allowed.

The club was named after the famous racehorse from the 1930s who many doubters believed didn’t have the skills needed to be a champion, explained Delores Fresh.

“Seabiscuit wasn’t expected to amount to much, but with guidance and encouragement, he became one of the greatest racehorses ever,” she said.

“You can be successful, too, with a little guidance,” she told Gilbert’s class before giving out the awards. “We’re here to help. All you need is a trainer, a jockey and heart.”

One by one, Gilbert called the names of students who received one or more of the special green certificates showing their math prowess. She told those not called to keep at it because their time would come.

“Being recognized for passing our test was really cool,” Julia said. “I like that they spent so much time making the certificates.”

Anne agreed and had another thought.

“It showed me that all those people who take the time to help us really care,” she said.

Lizzy’s favorite subject in school is writing, not math, but she feels that “passing it forward” may be an idea with merit.

“When I’m older, maybe I could help little kids with their writing skills, be a mentor,” she noted.

South Whidbey school board member Steven Scoles was a tutor at the middle school for three years, focusing on English and science.

“It can be hard because many of the kids lacked motivation,” he recalled. “They struggled in class and sometimes faced difficulties in their home environment.”

He said that he found himself providing emotional as well as academic support, while working with teachers and parents.

“I remember helping a boy with a science project, an experiment,” Scoles said. “Just being there, helping him pull the pieces together, but not actually doing the work. That’s when being a mentor or tutor becomes really rewarding.”

The schools can use all the help they can get. On a recent morning, a half-dozen students were working with tutors in the special classroom run by coordinator Anne Chambers.

Paul Kukuk has been a tutor with the Learning Partners program at the school for six years.

“All of us, working together as a team, can make a real difference in the lives of these students,” he said.

Middle school principal Rod Merrill said the presence of older helpers in class is significant on many levels.

“Extra hands for extra skills is especially important when you’ve got 30 kids in a classroom, as Sandy does,” he said. “Working one-on-one can make the difference.”

Merrill is a great believer in the value of kids establishing relationships with seniors.

“Look at Rudy (Mayko); he’s 91 and the kids love him,” he said. “The kids see that older people really care about them and their success.”

Gilbert goes to great lengths to get parents involved.

“Parents have the most power with their child,” she said. “If they believe in them, they will believe in themselves.

“I have 131 sixth-graders and not one student failed math the first quarter,” Gilbert noted.

Anyone wanting to be a part of the Langley Middle School Learning Partners program can call Anne Chambers at 221-5100.

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