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MERRILLVILLE — Instructional math coach Mike Ewing moved around the room quickly from the board to students as he used a pizza pie to explain fractions to Merrillville Intermediate School fifth-graders.

The Merrillville Intermediate School, made up of 917 fifth- and sixth-graders, has two instructional coaches who work with students. The other coach is Nikki Laird, the English/language arts instructional coach.

The pair spend their days traveling from classroom to classroom working intensively with teachers and students to improve students’ understanding of the concepts, thus raising test scores.

The intermediate school has a new principal this year in Kara Bonin, who moved from the central office position as director of elementary curriculum to her first love — working closely with children. Bonin also is a former principal at Salk Elementary School in Merrillville.

The Indiana Department of Education previously graded the Merrillville Intermediate School a C. Although the 2016 ISTEP-Plus scores have not been publicly released, Bonin said the scores dropped.

“Our ultimate goal is to be a Four Star, Blue Ribbon School,” she said.

“In order to do that, we have to improve our ISTEP achievement scores. Right now, we know our scores dropped, so we are looking at our instructional practices in the classroom. Research says the best way and most impactful way to improve instruction in the classroom is to use instructional coaches.”

The Blue Ribbon Schools Program honors public and private elementary, middle and high schools that are either high performing or have improved student achievement to high levels, especially among disadvantaged students. The program is part of a larger United States Department of Education effort to identify and disseminate knowledge about best school leadership and teaching practices.

The Four Star honor is a state program honoring schools that ranked in the top 25th percentile of schools on the state-mandated ISTEP-Plus test.

“Many times, due to finances, schools don’t make the commitment to have instructional coaches, but Merrillville has made that commitment and even added instructional coaches across the school corporation, particularly in math,” Bonin said.

Bonin said the coaches have dual purposes — helping students with strategies and modeling and providing feedback for teachers on how to better present information to students.

Laird is in her sixth year as coach and this is Ewing’s first year as a math coach. Prior to that, he was a classroom math teacher.

Ewing said he enjoys working with students and is primarily working with fifth-graders.

“Instead of just having 60 kids, I get to see all of them and their teachers and the great things teachers do in the classroom,” he said.

“Kids have different learning styles. We have to get them to learn in the way that makes sense to them. Most kids can tell you that they had four slices of pizza but they haven’t thought of it as four-tenths of a pizza.”

Ewing spent a portion of Friday morning in Amanda Gentilcore’s fifth-grade math class. Gentilcore said her students are working on adding and subtracting decimals and comparing decimals to fractions. She also reviews Ewing’s lessons after his 40-minute session with students each day.

In Julie DiFiore’s fifth-grade English/language arts class, Laird read a book to students as she focused on teaching reading by inference, that is, the practice of inferring the meaning of an unfamiliar word or expression from the meaning of familiar words near it, or one’s own knowledge.

“This is a skill that students have been working on, using the text clues to come up with their own ideas,” Laird said.


Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.