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Teacher creates cartoon character to help students master math

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Dennis Lynn points out his popular assignments-on-the-wall practice. The hallway walls at Newton D. Baker Elementary School are like his canvas for learning materials. Mr. Lynn, a Title 1 teacher at the school, is called 'the best math teacher in the whole state of Ohio' by his former principal.


CLEVELAND - The biggest enemy of higher proficiency test scores at Newton D.

Baker is not poverty, bad teachers, or slow children.

It is Grandma Lynn, the imaginary relative of math teacher Dennis Lynn.

Mr. Lynn's cartoons of Grandma Lynn are part of the foundation of this West Cleveland school.

"We try to battle Grandma Lynn, an ugly old lady who tries to make us not learn," said Kenyatta Jones, 10. "Sometimes she puts test-taking tips on us, like put pizza on your paper so when it gets to Columbus it'll taste so good they'll give you an A."


Teacher Dona Fejes gives Mark McMillon a hand with his assignment at Newton D. Baker Elementary. Her goal is to have the fourth-grade curriculum taught by March.


Newton D. Baker Elementary School is an arts magnet school where children are encouraged to express their imagination in painting, drawing, drama, and music.

But no one in the school gets a bigger kick out of his own ingenious

creations than Mr. Lynn.

"Grandma Lynn challenges the kids almost every single day," Mr. Lynn said.

"Can they defeat Grandma Lynn today? Absolutely."

"I have the best math teacher in the whole state of Ohio," retired Principal Yvonne Aguilera says. "Kids love him."

He is an example of how one expert teacher can make a difference in an

entire school's proficiency test scores.

Newton D. Baker's passing rate on the fourth-grade math exam rose from 34 per cent the year before Mr. Lynn was hired to 74 per cent the year later.

The school's march toward math comprehension continued in 2000 when the math scores went to 94 per cent passing. Newton D. Baker consistently has among the highest test scores in Cleveland

and among urban elementary schools around Ohio.

In the 1999 fourth-grade proficiency exams, 82.8 per cent of the

fourth-graders passed the math proficiency exam, and 51.7 per cent passed the reading exam, putting the school in the top quarter of schools in the state for math, and the third quarter for reading. With 89 per cent qualifying for free or reduced price lunches, Newton D. Baker ranks in the 20 per cent of schools with the lowest-income students in Ohio.

Mr. Lynn, 54, has been a teacher for 32 years, and a Title 1 teacher for 12 years.

"For 27 years I underestimated what inner-city children can do," he said.

Children get drama, visual arts, singing, instrumental music, photography, and dance every week. Arts serve proficiency purposes leading up the all-important proficiency week in mid-March.

"We do arts to enhance the program. These children aren't used to just

sitting around doing paperwork. We have more fun here and half the time they don't realize they're learning," fourth-grade teacher Dona Fejes said.

Mrs. Fejes's goal is to "teach the whole fourth-grade curriculum by March."

"Everybody's looking at us because we were a pilot program. We want to be the best," Mrs. Fejes said. "Our staff is very innovative. We look for new ways to teach. We invent the wheel."

She said the leadership of the principal is very important.

"This principal will support any idea that is educationally sound. She's

very supportive. I worked for one of the principals who was fired. He was a tyrant. You want someone who's effective, who's supportive," Mrs. Fejes said.

At the urging of Mrs. Aguilera, who retired at the end of the last school

year, the school converted seven years ago to a magnet school for the arts.

She selected the teachers - after having to be interviewed and selected


She said the school does not get the "cream of the crop" for pupils, despite its reputation as a magnet school.

Enrollment is based on a lottery, and no audition is required.

But as a magnet school, it attracts parents who know they want a premium program for their children, Mrs. Aguilera acknowledged.

"Parents have chosen where they want to send their kids; so they pretty much support us," Mrs. Aguilera said.

Each teacher maintains a checklist on the progress of every child. Children whose grades are still below average by November might require testing or tutoring.

Mrs. Aguilera was so committed to test scores that she personally offered $5 to any child who passes all five of the exams. She said she has spent $600 of her own money.

"We know the style of the test and we know how to teach test-taking skills - and that's very important," Mrs. Aguilera said.

Unlike the way Title 1 teachers are used in most schools, at Newton D. Baker the Title 1 teachers enter the classroom and teach alongside the regular teacher.

The side-by-side teaching opened the door for Mr. Lynn to work with all

students, not just the lowest performing.

Mr. Lynn's cartoon quizzes are posted on the walls, especially near the

restrooms, to give children something to do while standing in line.

Mr. Lynn said he has been approached about publishing his workbooks, but not seriously.

He has 100 cartoon lessons. Together, they reinforce each of the essential skills contained in the Ohio math proficiency standards 25 times between August and March.

"I call it Saturday morning cartoon math," Mr. Lynn said. "I would say that with this program we are tripling the amount that we put in their heads."

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