Ninth-grader Ethan Dotzler sat at the computer table, about to take an intermediate algebra test he’d struggled with previously. He didn’t need a calculator or charts and graphs. Instead, he came armed with pizza, pretzels and chocolate milk.

Shania Scott, a 10th-grader, was among the next to enter the Anoka High School computer room. Scott, also there to retake a section of the algebra test, swallowed a forkful of mashed potatoes and gravy, pushed aside a tray loaded with chicken, biscuits, kiwi and chocolate milk, and chewed on the idea of scoring higher than 70 percent on her test, unlike the last time.

“I’m here during lunch period because I want to improve my grade, but can’t come after school,” she said. “I brought my lunch with me because I need to eat. The teachers don’t care if you eat at your computer. They’ve actually encouraged it.”

Aside from the occasional piece of popcorn chicken falling to the floor, the math teachers who oversee Anoka High’s lunch intervention program say the sessions for math students are working fine. The program, which began last year, was offered for students who want to score better or have an academic need to raise their grades but have conflicts after school.

Time can be a factor

Sophomore Riley Boe­digheimer is on the football, hockey and track teams, so he’s busy practicing immediately after school. But he showed up for the lunch intervention program because he struggled with a section of an algebra test. With a tray of chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, chocolate chip cookie and chocolate milk at his side, Riley proclaimed, “I’m ready to focus.”

Ninth-grader Brandin Towle admitted, “I’m not that, say, excellent at math. It’s not my strong suit. But I prefer having free time after school. I’d rather hang out with my friends.”

For math teachers like Rachel Frosch and Patrick Pangborn, this is a formula they can gladly live with.

“They’ve proven that they’ve sat in class and it didn’t work for them,” said Pangborn, who has been teaching at the school since 2002. “We’ve found the solution.”

And, in the process, the teachers have also learned a thing or two.

Frosch said teachers wondered whether students would be willing to forfeit the chance to socialize with friends during lunch. And she wondered whether they’d struggle to concentrate during lunch hour, or if they’d complain if forced to bring a bagged lunch from home into the study session.

Tweaking the program

“Last year, we tried the lunch-bag style, but nobody wanted to eat peanut butter and jelly every day,” Frosch said. “But allowing kids to eat a hot lunch while holding these sessions in the cafeteria wasn’t practical, either. For starters, it would be too noisy.”

So the students now have permission to cut to the head of the lunch line, purchase their hot meals and then retreat to a room lined with rows of computers, where they have 25 minutes to eat, retake sections of tests and ask for one-on-one help from teachers.

For Heidi Schwartz, a school-suspension supervision specialist who stands in the back of the room, life couldn’t be easier. These kids weren’t given detention. They actually want to be here.

“They have targets. They want to focus,” she said.

“The kids are very respectful,” Pangborn said. “They know what they need to do.”

They’re doing it. Very few Anoka High students are getting D’s or F’s in algebra these days, Pangborn said. Many of the students who attend these lunch sessions are good students. Ethan Dotzler has a B-plus average in Pangborn’s class.

“I had a fine grade,” said Annika Wojtowicz, a sophomore, “but they want me to do my very best.”

Coon Rapids High School, also in the Anoka-Hennepin district, is considering adopting a similar program, Frosch said.

Samantha O’Donoghue, a sophomore who hopes one day to be a dentist, said she likes the idea of getting her work done earlier in the day so she won’t have to worry about it when she gets home. She has an added incentive for attending the lunch intervention class.

“If I don’t have a B or higher,” she said, “my mom will ground me.”