University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski helps teach computer coding to students at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. (Marlayna Demond/UMBC)
Columnist

I recently visited Lakeland Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, where the largely Hispanic and African American student body has made dramatic improvements in math. This is a group that at one time seemed to have fallen hopelessly behind in that demanding subject.

But Lakeland’s standardized math test scores have jumped 12 percent in the past two years, with half of the school’s third-graders earning passing grades in math on the most recent Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, known as PARCC. That’s compared with a 20 percent average for the rest of Baltimore schools and Maryland’s statewide average of 42 percent.

How are these students — most from low-income households — managing to make such impressive strides?

Here’s what I found:

The school partners with some of the most technology-rich institutions and corporations in the area, such as Northrop Grumman, the National Security Agency and especially the University of Maryland Baltimore County. These aren’t corporate image-burnishing projects, the kind in which sponsors “adopt a school” and drop in from time to time to play with the kids.

You do that after adopting a pet, not partnering with a school.

Lakeland’s partnerships have helped it create customized learning programs that are being replicated and expanded in other city schools. One project, called “Zone Math,” builds a network of collaborating teachers and researchers who work with similar student demographics in schools near one another.

Once a community of teachers is formed, UMBC helps train them how to analyze student test and assessment data. University researchers and math experts help them develop targeted interventions for students who need extra help. The teachers train together, visit other schools and classrooms and share their experiences.

So far, components of the partnership programs are being replicated at four other Baltimore schools, with plans to expand into four more by 2020.

“Our goal is to increase math mastery levels at those schools by 50 percent within three years and decrease the number of students performing at the lowest levels by at least five percentage points each year,” said Freeman Hrabowski, the president of UMBC.

Each school year, the university dispatches a cadre of “math coaches” to support Lakeland teachers. They work one on one or with small groups, helping students who may need extra assistance grasping a mathematical concept or fundamental process. The coaches are usually undergrad math and engineering students. Other volunteers come from a retired-teacher program run by AARP or work at Northrop Grumman. Some belong to the National Society of Black Engineers or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

“Elementary school students might not think it’s possible to become something like an engineer,” Hrabowski said, “but when they start working with one who is black or Hispanic or a woman, that perception starts to change.”

If these efforts continue to show progress, we may finally have a model for teaching math literacy to black and Hispanic students trapped in poorly performing school districts throughout the country. The Washington area certainly has enough universities and colleges, along with high-tech government agencies, to at least give it a try.

“Everybody talks about partnerships, but not so much about the substance of the relationship,” Hrabowski said. “We have the research and the resources, and we can help a school reimagine what is possible for public education. To make it all work, though, the relationship must be based on trust, respect and a shared belief in the students’ capacity for learning.”

In other words, it does not matter how well-meaning the do-gooder volunteer is, or how deep the prospective donors’ pockets are, or how phenomenal a teacher is.

Without trust and respect among adults and unwavering confidence in the students’ abilities, all of that bounty won’t amount to a hill of beans.

“We recognize teachers are the ones who know the most about the students,” Hrabowski said. “I say to them, ‘We are here to support you. Just tell us what you need.’ ”

Hrabowski and Lakeland Principal Najib Jammal began forging the partnership in 2012. Jammal wanted to create what he called “a culture of math” at the school. Using university research, teachers found a way to incorporate math literacy into every subject.

Hrabowski helped him secure funding from foundations, provided the school with educational research from UMBC and worked on getting Northrop Grumman to build a STEAM Center (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) at the school. The partnership was initially launched with funds from George and Betsy Sherman.

More creative teaching techniques were tried. In a kindergarten phonetics class, for instance, five placards naming each of the five senses were hung from the ceiling above five numbered tables set up around the room.

When the teacher asked the students where a particular sense was located, say, hearing, the kids would look up and excitedly point to the correct placard — then call out the number on the table below it.

Impressive and even inspiring. Boys and girls, thriving in a math culture built on respect, trust, cooperation and the certainty that all children have the ability to learn.

Another teacher overheard her students engaging in a spirited discussion about sports. So she began devising math lessons that incorporated the names of their favorite players and game stats. The students loved it — sometimes, they didn’t want the class to end.

They even started making up their own math problems out of fantasy statistics and worked diligently until they came up with the right answers.

Some of the teachers have taken students who were more than two grade levels behind in math and, with the help of those math coaches and high-tech teaching tools, closed much of the gap within a single school year.

Hrabowski, a mathematician by training, sometimes takes time off from his presidential duties to help teach computer coding to third-graders at Lakeland.

“From my perspective as a teacher, the math foundation that students build up in those early years is everything,” Hrabowski said. But even when a student falls behind, he says, that’s no reason to give up on them.

During my visit, Jammal, the Lakeland principal, was preparing for back-to-school night, making sure newspaper articles about the rising test scores were prominently displayed. There was also news about Lakeland’s participation in a national robotics competition hosted by UMBC. (Lakeland’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony is also held on the university campus.)

“For us, it’s important to let parents know that we are making huge strides and that we want them with us every step of the way,” Jammal said.

What they had created at Lakeland wasn’t just a partnership. It was an extended family — “a village,” as Hrabowski calls it.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.