By Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Parents and teachers know getting kids excited about academics can be tricky. One Twin Cities non-profit is tackling the problem in a unique way, with the help of Matt Dumba, Jimmy Butler and just about any local athlete you can think of.

In Northeast Minneapolis, in a donated office building – their team is working. It’s almost like a game for the sports junkies. ACES is their team name — Athletes Committed to Educating Students.

The group started in 1994. They use sports to teach math to 4th grade through 8th grade students after school at Boys and Girls Clubs in the Twin Cities.

“They engage in project-based learning, where they engage in some aspect of sports — whether it’s statistics, the usefulness of sports, athlete health and they’re practicing their math skills through it,” ACES executive direct Christina Saunders said.

The curriculum is very specific and personalized. Math problems might talk about Jimmy Butler’s point total, or how many touchdowns that Aaron Rogers had.

“Using that as a math base and then using the name drop of Jimmy Butler — somebody they maybe watch every night on their TV and really look up to — creates the extra bit to create that extra excitement in the classroom,” Saunders said.

They work with kids four days a week, hours a day, keeping a tight focus on math and character-building.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that success in middle school math is a precursor in high school math, and graduation,” Saunders said. “We’re one of the only programs that really focuses on math and we work with a demographic that tends to come to us in the fourth grade already behind in math.”

And the work is always rewarding, for volunteers and athletes.

“We talk about the ‘Aha!’ moments in ACES, when a kid has been struggling with a math concept and all the sudden they get it, and it’s like ‘Wow, that totally makes sense to me!'” ACES development coordinator Claire Bartholomew said.

North Minneapolis 5th grader Angellina Calloway has had some of those moments.

“Last year I wasn’t really good at multiplication,” she said. “I started to learn it a bit and then I came here and I had to keep learning, so I got better and better at it.”

They create and teach all the curriculum — 400 lessons a year. Pros are involved too — Matt Dumba is an ACES regular, and so is Jimmy Butler.

Trent Tucker lead the Gophers to a Big Ten title and ended decade-long pro career winning the championship with the Chicago Bulls. Now, he’s focused on helping ACES grow.

“Anytime you have athletes educating students, that’s near to my heart,” he said.

And ACES is especially dear to Tucker.

“The middle school age is critical,” he said. “It’s where many students will be making decisions about the rest of their future.”

Take Khaled for example: After his family immigrated from Africa, he jumped right in — joining ACES with the hopes of improving his English. Now, he’s an excellent high school math teacher.

“For kids today to belong to something that’s positive, that’s going to give them a sense of direction, and a sense of hope and let them also know that all things are possible and their future can be pretty bright,” Khaled said.

And they also have a lot of fun building those futures — students take field trips all over the Twin Cities, attending sporting events and applying math to real life sports scenarios.

ACES also teaches social and emotional skills. Using sports lessons, they teach kids how to lose, how to come back from failure, and how to work as a team.

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