Laura Cochlin's fifth-grade students at Carver Elementary School in Maplewood thought they were discussing one of their favorite things -- breakfast cereal.

Cochlin told them the amount of sugar in Trix, Kix, Cheerios and other cereals. Then she walked them through the process of determining the range, the median and the average amount of sugar content.

Turns out, it wasn't a chat about cereal, but a math lesson. Call it what you will, the process appears to be working.

Three years ago the math achievement test scores at Carver Elementary were dead last in a group of 52 schools that had similar income and race attributes. Only 56 percent of its third- , fourth- and fifth-graders were proficient or better in math. But by test-taking time last spring, the results had changed: Eighty-two percent of them were proficient, and the school was ranked in the top 15 of the group it had trailed.

"In mathematics we are highly competitive," says Paul Brashear, assessment and program quality coordinator for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, home to Carver. Brashear, the district's point person for academic testing, helps schools improve their teaching and testing.

While Brashear and the school's principal, Joe Slavin, aren't yet ready to offer their prescription for Carver as a blueprint for how underperforming schools can make substantial progress, they are proud of the simple solutions they devised that include requiring students to spend more time on math, shoring up connections with parents and improving teaching methods.

"In the fall of 2006 we realized we could not say with certainty that we had a guaranteed and valid curriculum," Brashear said.

Slavin says that there's no secret to the improved performance and that the ingredients for better achievement were there when he became principal three years ago.

"I noticed right away that we had a strong staff and a strong community of parents," Slavin says. "The academic results didn't mirror that."

Summer school

The first task was to make academic achievement a goal that has everyone's constant focus, Slavin says. Next was to assemble an improvement plan for academic achievement. The school hired a math specialist, who worked with the teachers and who taught all students on a rotating basis. Plus it increased the time for math instruction to 75 minutes per day.

"In the past, that was optional. But we made it part of our core curriculum," Slavin says.

The extra time came courtesy of the school extending its day by 30 minutes, to six and a half hours. That was no simple task since it meant rerouting bus schedules throughout the district, which includes nine elementary schools and 11,000 students through all grades.

Cochlin, Carver's math specialist, says elementary teachers have a complex task. They must teach a variety of children a variety of subjects, including reading, writing, science, social studies and math. What's more, math may not have been among the teachers' strong suit when they were in school.

"The more content knowledge teachers have about a particular subject, the better able they are to teach that subject," Cochlin says, adding that teachers have taken well to the additional training, which included a four-day summer session. Cochlin also gives all students a math lesson about once a week, which follows along with what is being taught in their daily classes.

Not just working on math

Other efforts underscore their objectives of connecting with parents and community. For several years the school has held a once-a-year "Spanish Family Night" for its Hispanic students.

This year it added a Hmong Family Night, coinciding with the Hmong New Year. Next year the Hmong event will be planned and carried out mostly by the parents of its Hmong students.

Slavin said the school also has required teachers to correspond more with parents about homework and student progress. "It's important for a school to have a strong connection to all the communities it serves," he said.

The math results are not an outlier. The school also has made progress in its reading, and it is working at improving education on a variety of fronts. In one effort, the school has created a boys-only section for some first-graders, based on research that indicates it provides a better learning environment for some. The other three sections are co-ed. In another initiative, the school is "looping" teachers, keeping them with the same students from one year to the next.

For some students, their fourth-grade teacher last year is their fifth-grade teacher this year. The theory is that such continuity minimizes the amount of lost learning over the summer and gives them a faster start in the fall since both teacher and students know what to expect from each other.

Going forward, Carver Elementary officials are developing an intervention system that will identify kids struggling in math and give them intensive instruction each day. That's something they've already done for their reading curriculum.

Gregory A. Patterson • 651-298-1546