Think fast: When you hear “Camden” and “All-Stars,” what do you think of first?
The Sixers, right? And basketball. And while, sure, the team is working hard to piece together a road to victory next season, there are in fact a set of bonafide All-Stars in Camden right now—and their success has less to do with ball-handling and everything to do with…math.
For three years in a row now, Denzel G. Smith, a sixth grade teacher and the athletic director at Mastery Schools of Camden-Cramer Hill, has led students to winning the regional and national championship in NBA Math Hoops, a game-based math program that focuses on the foundational math skills that cut across Common Core and state standards in third through eighth grade. The program is provided for free to educators nationwide, with 93 percent of the 4,200-plus participating teachers serving low-income communities like Philly and Camden.
Gianni Steele, now a 14-year-old 9th grader, won regionals in both sixth and seventh grade; in sixth grade, she went to and won the national championship in Detroit, where she was paired to play on the same team with another student from Philly. (Smith, her teacher, had another team of winners last year, as well; they won regionals, and competed at the national tournament, which was moved to a virtual format in light of the pandemic.)
The experience didn’t just give Steele a sense of pride in her math skills—it forged friendships, opened doors, and made her proud to shine a positive spotlight on her hometown, Camden.
“Camden doesn’t really get too much positive praise, so to get praise out of NBA Math Hoops, I find joy in that,” she says. She was always a strong math student—but, she says, NBA Math Hoops made her even stronger. She envisions herself someday pursuing a career in math or science.
The game also strengthened her bond with classmates. “It makes it easier to connect with people,” she says. “Before NBA Math Hoops, people weren’t really mixing our groups. It was like a group of kids over there who would talk, and another group of kids over there would talk.” Then Smith mixed things up, and paired students who didn’t necessarily know each other well. “Once we were paired up, it became all about you and your teammate winning, and people started bonding over the game.”
NBA Math Hoops is run by the educational nonprofit Learn Fresh, in partnership with the NBA, WNBA, and Hasbro. Since its launch in 2012, it has found proven success in helping kids with all kinds of interests feel like winners.
It now has virtual and mobile iterations, but the heart of NBA Math Hoops is a board game that was created in the 90s by San Diego Math teacher Tim Scheidt. It was the era of Michael Jordan, when NBA fever swept the country—and Scheidt landed on basketball as a tool that both he and his students were passionate about.
Whether you’re a kid who loves sports or knows nothing about them, you can excel at the game; all that students, and their teachers, need to understand about basketball at the outset of the game, essentially, is that there are five players on a team, and that players score, more or less, by making two- or three-point shots.
“Camden doesn’t really get too much positive praise, so to get praise out of NBA Math Hoops, I find joy in that,” says Gianni Steele.
As the game progresses over the course of 12 weeks—through a one-time draft and then twice-weekly game-play that involves having players “shoot” and “score” based on their statistics—students naturally accumulate increased basketball knowledge along with their math facts. (Students employ spinners and dice to keep the game moving; to watch how it all unfolds, check out the videos here.)
Around the time Scheidt was playing the game with his students in San Diego, he met Bill Daughtrey, a retired NBA executive who was volunteer-teaching entrepreneurship in Rhode Island. After a series of conversations about the success Scheidt was having with his game, the duo brought the idea to the NBA.
“This was a program that was proven in Tim’s class, but it wasn’t yet proven nationally, or scaled, at that time. But the NBA took this chance to provide us with the foundations needed to make the program successful, from access to players and logos to everything else you’d need to make the program feel real to kids,” explains Nick Monzi, to make it feel cool. Monzi is the CEO of Learn Fresh, which since 2012 has run NBA Math Hoops.
A New York native, Monzi has since December been based in Philly—which is fitting, given that the Sixers Youth Foundation is the biggest supporter of the program among the NBA and WNBA. “The Sixers Youth Foundation has led the way and really created the gold-star model for how a team can support the program,” Monzi says.
“We believe that sports is one of the most powerful ways to help our youth grow and learn,” says Sixers President Chris Heck. “Math Hoops takes all that we love about sports—passion, teamwork, and competition—to create an educational game that makes learning fun.”
There are 18,549 students who’ve participated in NBA Math Hoops in the Philly area; last year, the Sixers Youth Foundation provided a three-year, $325,000 commitment to scale the program even further throughout the region.
Sixers President Chris Heck said, via email, that NBA Math Hoops is simply in line with the organization’s values: “We believe that sports is one of the most powerful ways to help our youth grow and learn. Math Hoops takes all that we love about sports—passion, teamwork, and competition—to create an educational game that makes learning fun. It’s a great way to teach important math skills while keeping students engaged.”
And the game doesn’t just focus on math literacy. Monzi explains that the program is focused on three specific outcomes: math proficiency, and the predictive quality of middle school math as it relates to high school graduation rates; engagement around math and STEM learning, and providing a fun, creative way to approach math; and social-emotional development.
Accuracy alone doesn’t predict success in the game; sure, kids need to sharpen skills like percent-decimal-fraction conversion, data-analysis, and basic operations—but they also need to focus on strategy. How you draft your players, “manage” your team, and work with your teammates can all put students in the running to go to the glitzy annual regional and national NBA Math Hoops tournaments.
“Social-emotional learning wasn’t a buzzword in the 90s [when Scheidt invented it], but our program has always had that embedded in the learning infrastructure,” Monzi says. Students start the game by signing a sportsmanship contract and work in pairs, constantly navigating the teamwork aspect of the game. “Now it’s such a focus of STEM learning, and we’ve kind of backed our way into being really relevant in that space,” Monzi says.
Since its inception, Learn Fresh has made progress on all three of its goals. A 2019 third-party assessment of NBA Math Hoops found that participants demonstrated 35 percent gains in math fluency and 18 percent growth on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)-aligned math assessment.
A 2019 social-emotional outcomes study showed that program participants were 30 percent more likely than a control group to report growth in key attributes like leadership, grit, and resilience. Over the course of the next year, Learn Fresh will also be partnering with PEAR Institute at Harvard on a study focused on social emotional development.
Smith, the sixth grade teacher and the athletic director at Mastery Schools of Camden-Cramer Hill, relishes the opportunity to bring NBA Math Hoops to his students.
“I love every aspect of it,” Smith says. He particularly appreciates the way it gets kids to think differently not just about math, but the world around them. “It’s an eye-opener for the kids. They see a lot of NBA players and they think that they’re the king of the world—and then they look at the stats, and they’re like Oh wait, this person is [statistically] better, and they play for the WNBA! It opens up the kids’ minds and shows them that women can do anything, and that they can do anything.”
He sees non-social kids become sociable; he sees kids rooting for each other even when sportsmanship points aren’t at stake; he sees kids opening up to him about their experiences outside of the classroom.
His program has been so popular, that he had to transition it from being played in his classroom to being an extracurricular activity, making his classroom a place for kids to spend time in the afternoons.
He loves the chance to instill in kids a sense of pride in their city, Camden, which too often has a negative light cast on it. “Winning the national championship makes the kids feel like they have their swagger back,” Smith says. “It shows others that positive things do happen here, and there are a lot of great things going on in this city.”
And while a virtual version of the game had long been on the back-burner, the pandemic accelerated the development of an online game, which launched just last week. Additionally, a new mobile app serves as a complement to game-play, a veritable “shoot-around,” practice session, as Monzi describes it. These tech-based versions will allow Learn Fresh to scale the program worldwide; a pilot program is in the works in Melbourne, with plans to capitalize on the popularity of basketball in Africa and throughout Europe.
This year, Learn Fresh is also introducing its first-ever Learn Fresh Fellowship for Culturally Inclusive Education, inviting educators and curriculum writers of color to create and broadly share standards-aligned curricula that “authentically represent the cultural, ethnic, and racial identities of their communities,” Monzi explains. (The application for the fellowship lives here and will be open through October.)
Learn Fresh also has other non-basketball programs in development—concert tours with entertainers who are aligned with environmental consciousness, programs tailored to other pro sports. Such product-line expansions will pave the way for more corporate sponsorships; for now, about 40 percent of funding for NBA Math Hoops comes largely from the NBA and WNBA, with Hasbro producing all game boards for free and corporate and philanthropic partnerships covering the remaining costs. While the game board itself involves minimal language, it’s currently available in Spanish and English, with the capacity to translate to 50 languages—and its potential to travel the world is limitless.
“Ultimately, we can share the same language of NBA Math Hoops with any student who’s participating in the program, no matter what their circumstances are,” Monzi says. “In an ideal world, every student is playing NBA Math Hoops in their school.”
Lisa Mims has been a teacher for 36 years. She loves what Sixers Math Hoops has done for her fifth graders at Pleasantville Elementary School in New Castle, DE.
“My whole goal is to expose my students to things that normally they wouldn’t be exposed to,” Mims says. “I was just so happy to give them this opportunity.” One of her students, who would’ve gone to nationals last year had Covid-19 not thwarted plans, had only recently immigrated from Africa, and her pride in her accomplishment was immeasurable. “When she found out that she was going to nationals, oh my god, she and her parents were so proud! This was just an all-around amazing experience. I bring a lot of things into my classroom, but I really, really enjoyed this.”Header photo by Daniela Hichak Photography