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Boys Choir of Harlem sings praises of algebra software

Saturday, February 02, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Imagine trying to master algebra when you're in a room with 44 other youngsters of varying ages, your teacher is hundreds of miles away and you have to sing before thousands of people at the end of the day.

From left, Antoine Dolberry, 14, Christopher Walton, 13, Barry Green, 14, Corri Miller, 12, and Levar Brown, 12, of the Harlem Boys Choir work on algebra problems yesterday during a visit to Carnegie Learning Inc. in the Strip. The company donated four laptop computers to the choir yesterday. (Jasmine Gehris, Post-Gazette)

You'd probably appreciate anything that would make understanding your school work easier and more fun.

And you'd only have to look at the faces of Boys Choir of Harlem members eagerly huddled over laptop computers to conclude the software they're using may be the answer.

With their performance at the Benedum Center just hours away, 44 members of the internationally renowned choir were at the Strip District offices of Carnegie Learning Inc. yesterday using the Cognitive Tutor for Algebra.

Some of the youngsters had used the software program before and others hadn't, but all seemed to enjoy the process.

"It's a better way of learning," said tenor Michael Glover, 17, a senior who was experimenting with the program for the first time. "You can get your work on your own. If they have a program for pre-calculus, I'll let my teacher know."

Alto Mark Duncan, 15, a sophomore who has used Cognitive Tutor for more than a year, credits it with helping his math test scores improve from around 80 to 85 and 90.

And he feels more secure that he is on the right track and not falling behind with his class work when he's on the road than he did when he was trying to keep up doing math problems on paper.

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"It's like a human touch," he said. "It give you hints. It tells you where your strong points are. You don't have to ask for help. With Cognitive Tutor I feel safe."

Cognitive Tutor was developed in Pittsburgh during the 1980s. It's a marriage of a software program created by John Anderson, a computer science and psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and a math curriculum developed by then-Langley High School math teacher Bill Hadley, who is now Carnegie Learning's chief academic officer and interim president.

The program involves having students applying math concepts to real world problems. It includes Algebra I, Algebra II and geometry.

More than 600 schools in 40 states use Cognitive Tutor, including 150 in Western Pennsylvania.

But the latest wave for the program has been its use with laptop computers that students can take home or on trips.

So far, only about half a dozen schools in the country, including Quaker Valley High School and the Choir Academy of Harlem, where the Boys Choir members are enrolled, are taking full advantage of using the program with laptops.

Carnegie Learning officials would like to see Cognitive Learning laptop use expand. They even donated four laptops to the Boys Choir yesterday so that more boys have access to the equipment.

The Choir Academy, which has 567 boys and girls in grades 4 to 12, has been using Cognitive Learning in the classroom for several years. But it's only been in the past few months that choir members have been able to work with the program on the road, said Boys Choir founder and president Walter J. Turnbull.

Boy and girl choir members travel for a weekend to two weeks to perform, and they are expected to do school work three to four hours every day, Turnbull said. So being able to do the Cognitive Learning program on laptops has been beneficial.

The Choir Academy, which started with its elementary and middle school grades 15 years ago, has a high school graduation rate that ranges between 90 percent and 95 percent, and 98 percent of the graduates are accepted into college.

Turnbull thanked Carnegie Learning and Carnegie Mellon officials yesterday for developing a program that helps choir members, who have 125 concerts a year, keep up in school.

"They're all engaged," he said, watching the boys absorbed with work on the computers. I love seeing this."

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