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DECATUR — Kids come to Summer Math Academy for different reasons.

“My mom sort of made me come,” said Tiara Dyer, who will be in fifth grade at Garfield Montessori School in the fall.

The reason, Tiara said, was that her best friend since preschool was signed up for the academy, and the two girls have done almost everything together for years.

“When I came here, we always hung out together because we didn't know anybody else here,” Tiara said. “Seeing other kids and meeting new people and doing math (was fun). I've always been good at math.”

Summer math academy ended on Thursday after a three-week camp created by local educator Juanita Morris. The camp is in its second year and it's growing: There were 100 kids attending, compared to 75 the first year. 

A Decatur native and graduate of Millikin University, Morris wasn't a good math student herself in high school. It wasn't until college that she conquered math, and she has a degree in mathematics and statistics to prove it. She wanted to ensure that youngsters didn't have to wait as long as she did to see the value in math and to feel confident about their ability.

“For me, it's to present math concepts in a different way that will give them more success,” Morris said. “That's really the goal. There's a way we have to learn during the school year, but we're not bound by time and all the other things (teachers are during the school year), yet instruction is still driven by (state) standards, and we still have great expectations. How you present it is much different than you find in a traditional classroom setting.”

Books, homework and tests are tossed out, and students learn through math games and puzzles that engage them and make the learning fun, she said.

That's what Tiara liked about it, but fellow camper Iya Johnson, also a fifth-grader, said she missed tests. She said tests help her discover what she knows well and what she needs to work on, though she did enjoy the academy.

Libraries and other academic camps offer ways to keep kids' reading levels from dropping off during summer break, said teacher Stacey Long, who was new to the academy this year, but there is little chance to keep math skills sharp. That's where the summer math academy comes in.

“I have taught reading for two years and thought this would be a good refresher,” Long said. “I love it. It's so fun to be able to play games and let the kids help each other and play games. It's awesome.”

Long will be teaching at Harris School in the fall, which will be Decatur Public Schools' alternative learning center.

Mount Zion teacher Craig McKenzie is also in his first year at the academy, recruited by Morris, whose children attend Mount Zion schools.

“You take away the textbooks and tests and there's a little bit less stress on kids,” he said. “I think it's a little bit more fun for them, more informal.”

Boys and girls are in separate classes, which Morris said is deliberate and backed by research that shows both sexes are less self-conscious that way.

Johns Hill Magnet School student Qayden Bond said he's always been good at math.

“(I'm here) to learn more about math,” he said. “Because I like numbers a lot.”

The academy is sponsored by the Decatur Public Schools Foundation and Ameren.

Morris said Tiara is not alone in her initial reluctance to attend the camp. There are often students who don't want to come at first, but their parents convince them to give it a try. By the end of the first week, they've made friends and had fun and they want to come back. In last year's group, several of the students who were going into high school ended up in honors classes thanks to the skills and confidence they gained in the academy. 

“When they get to class there's a little boost, a little more confidence,” Morris said. “They realize, 'I think I know a little bit and if I don't, I know I can learn it.'”

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

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