Close the opportunity gap by providing small group math instruction for our highest need students in order to accelerate their academic growth.

Fellow Summer Institute 2015 – Opening Remarks


Good morning and welcome! My name is Tim Johnson, I am the director of Denver Math Fellows and proud to say that I play for Team DPS!


Welcome to Year 3! We are really excited to be entering our third year of Denver wide expansion. I’d like to kick-off this morning and our summer institute week with a brief overview of our program, a discussion of some of what I have learned in participating in a similar service year and a call for each of you to be a champion for the students you will be working with this year.


Brief Overview

The founding idea of our program is incredibly simple: Private tutoring is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States that is mainly accessed by affluent families. To expand opportunity, let’s offer individualized attention and instruction during the school day in math and literacy and at the same time create a service year opportunity for recent college graduates, career changers considering teaching and retirees.


In the development of the program model since it’s inception over a decade ago it has become apparent that tutoring is a total misnomer. The term tutoring brings to mind something casual like pizza with a kid and a few homework problems. This is not that! In fact, this is a highly selective urban education fellowship (we generate over 1,000 applicants annually) and our brand of small group instruction is rigorous, joyful and personalized.


You will be using data to plan lessons, meeting with teachers on individual students, receiving regular coaching and development and providing increased opportunity for individualized attention in math and social/emotional development for our highest need students across Denver.


This gets to the core of our mission to close the opportunity gap as well as our vision that every child succeeds.


One way that you can make our shared vision real for your work is to understand it in the context of the students you will be working with directly. Are you willing to do whatever it takes to set them on a positive trajectory? Are you committed to their growth and to inspiring them to internalize the belief that the harder they work, the smarter they will get?


Our core values are the guides for our individual and collective action throughout this year as we work to realize our mission and vision.


The Denver Math Fellows program will be in 47 schools this year with 240 fellows serving across the city of Denver. You were selected because we believe in you and your potential to:

  • Build powerful relationships with students and utilize those relationships so that your kids feel capable, cared for and connected
  • Set and maintain high academic and behavioral expectations and embody a no excuses attitude when it comes to the ability of our kids to perform at a high level


The Problem

Why are we here? Why do we need Denver Math Fellows?


Every year 1.2 million students drop out of high school with negative repercussions in terms of life outcomes for them and society in general.


Students who fail Algebra are 75% more likely to drop out of high school.


Knowing this, our program is designed to intervene early (in elementary and middle school) to ensure that we are able to fill gaps in understanding and support mastery of grade level standards as a foundation for Algebra readiness and a transition to high school.


Our program is a unique solution in that it adds-value to schools by bringing in a corps of mission aligned individuals to close opportunity gaps as well as providing those individuals with the tools needed to develop structured learning environments to maximize student learning.


Any time you are part of the solution you should know it is going to be hard work. If it were easy, it would have already been done. I want to be transparent here in that this is going to be a difficult year. It is also going to be a rewarding year if you are all in. In order to shed some light on what I mean by difficult and rewarding, I’d like to share two stories.


Two Stories

My service year experience was at a school in Boston. During that year I had the opportunity to teach two senior seminars in conjunction with Boston University, a freshman Reader’s Workshop and deliver small group instruction during school, after school and on the weekends.


The first story I would like to share is actually from my first day in the classroom. I still remember the night before and not being able to sleep. I was incredibly nervous and had so many questions running through my head: what if I say the wrong thing? Will my students respond well to me? Did I plan a lesson that will take the entire period?


I remember being in the room early—that wasn’t all that difficult as I lived on the top floor of the school with 40 other corps members—so I was in the room early organizing my class notes, arranging the seats and reading over my lesson plan. I was ready to go!


About mid-way through the lesson I decided to ask one student, Christina, a series of questions. I thought I was doing great by asking probing questions and pushing her thinking. And then, as I asked a second follow-up question, Christina stood up, tossed her binder across the table, said something I surely blocked from memory and then left the room.


In the aftermath of that first day I had an opportunity to apologize to Christina for putting her on the spot, meet with her foster mom, and accept Christina’s apology for her behavior. Through all this I learned an invaluable lesson: I needed to get to know my students as individuals, I needed to build relationships, before I could truly push and challenge them. I also learned that my actions set the tone for and shaped how my students responded and that I was ultimately responsible for everything that happened in my class.


As the semester progressed Christina ended up being one of my highest performing students who was regularly engaged and committed to the class. I can look back now at what happened and laugh but at the time I was seriously questioning whether or not I had what it took to teach.


The second story I would like to share is about the end of my service year. To be honest, I was absolutely drained. Looking back, I’m not surprised: during the winter months I would have basketball practice starting at 6:30am, I would teach and work with students in small groups all day and then spend time after school working with students until 7:30pm.   On top of that I would regularly conduct extra tutorial sessions on weekends – most often with Manny, Ayana and Dominick.


So, after completing my service year, after all of the ups and downs, I was leaving for the summer and just got on I-95 to drive to my parents house in Vermont. And then, with little warning, I just began to cry. I’m talking full water works. Today, I understand the intense emotional experience I was having as the challenge and reward of a service year colliding. I was drained, but full of purpose. I was tired, but full of passion. I was alone, but felt apart of something larger than myself.


I chose to take a risk and let my kids know me. I chose to get to know my students as individuals, as people. I chose to be a champion for my kids. I didn’t always succeed, my kids didn’t always succeed, but I knew I gave it all I had.


If you give it your all this year, it will be challenging and rewarding, I can promise that.


Will you be a champion?

Now, I’d like to share a 7 minute video that poses a great question for all of us that each will need to answer many times over the course of this year. Pay particular attention to the central message about the important of relationships.


In closing, I’d like to ask each of you:


Will you be a champion for your kids this year?


Thank you and have a great week and a great year of service with Denver Math Fellows!