As administrators, we sometimes forget what it was like to be a student. I recall very well what it was like to struggle with math. While I have a Ph.D today, I was a math-phobic kid. And many of the students who come through the doors at Holy Family Learning facilities are no different.

We face a unique challenge in helping these students learn math skills. A division of the Holy Family Institute, a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for at-risk children and their families, Holy Family Learning provides specialized education services to more than 800 students who are either placed with us by the courts for reasons of abuse or neglect or referred by schools because they have significant emotional or behavioral problems. When we get kids, they’re dreadfully behind and have developed a defiance that has interfered with their ability to learn. So we can’t take traditional approaches to instruction. We have to try new things.

In 2003, we came across a software solution from Apangea Learning, called SmartHelp (www.apangea.com). Computer learning has always been an integral part of our programs. But this was far more interactive than anything we had ever seen. And, at less than $5 per student, it was more affordable as well.

A combination of intelligent software and real-time support from human tutors, SmartHelp enables us to create a fully supportive environment in which students learn a consistent, structured approach to solving word problems and improving their math skills. And, because it is delivered online, we can provide students with the additional support they need anywhere, at any time.

Students in need of additional assistance begin by taking a diagnostic pre-test, which determines areas of weakness for each student and generates individual learning pathways to address them. These pathways are sent to teachers to approve and customize if necessary, and they are then activated online so that students can begin working through them. The ability to tailor student pathways was important to us, as teachers want to maintain control of what students learn and

administrators need to ensure the program is targeted to achieve results.

At the core of SmartHelp is a research-based approach to problem solving that helps our students learn how to solve word problems–not just how to arrive at the right answer. Each module begins with an interactive lesson that combines engaging audio, text, and graphics to explain a math concept and walk students through the process of solving an actual problem related to it. When the lesson is complete, students take a short quiz to determine whether they understood the concepts advanced in the lesson. The questions are designed to provide an early opportunity to succeed so that students are motivated going into the actual problem-solving portion of the module.

After completing the quiz, students begin solving the problems that have been selected for them based on their pathway. SmartHelp takes a unique approach in moving students through the problem-solving process, and one that I really like: It forces students to demonstrate understanding of the seven steps

required to solve problems before advancing to the next level. Students must correctly explore the problem, define the goal, identify the variables, build and solve an equation, answer the question, and explain their answer. There’s no way to cheat the system and skip to the next level.