Just three years ago, Anderson Elementary in San Jose was the lowest performing school in Santa Clara County. To put it in perspective, there are about 250 elementary schools in that county and Anderson was at the bottom.
"The students were so low academically," said Karen Allard, the school's former assistant principal. "We remember walking into a fifth-grade classroom and sitting there teaching fifth-graders the long 'A' sound."
Only 19 percent of the kids were proficient in math.
Allard and principal Destiny Ortega were hired to make drastic changes. Then came what is arguably the most popular math teacher the school has ever had -- an animated penguin named Jiji.
"We're at 72 percent proficient in math right now," said Ortega.
In September, Anderson had the greatest API gain in the entire county -- 136 points. The API measures a school's proficiency in math and English. Their API test scores went from 674 to 810.
California's Department of Education wants every school in the state to reach 800.
Jiji is a computer game the students at Anderson love. But in fact, the penguin teaches them about fractions through animated diagrams on the computer, not by using numbers. In one example, a half-circle plus another half-circle put together equals a whole.
"What our research says is that all the students can engage immediately with the visuals and then they can get quick success in learning math," said Andrew R. Coulson, president of the education division of Mind Research Institute in Santa Ana which owns Jiji.
While Jiji makes math easier to comprehend, students at Anderson still had to learn the mathematical concepts in English.
"It's difficult for students to understand mathematical concepts when there is a language issue," said Glen Ishiwata, superintendent of Moreland School District.
Most are English learners. So the school implemented a math board program where the kids learn the language by repeating over and over again what the teacher says and by using props and visuals.
Several University of California scientists came up with the software program with animated diagrams. In one lesson, a student must figure out how many rotations and steps it will to take to place Jiji in the space where the key to a treasure lies. By doing so, she's thinking multiple steps ahead, like in chess.
"And being able in your mind's eye to kind of rotate it around and think about how this is going to fit next to that, all of that kind of reasoning skill – that's something these kids are going to be excellent at in the future," explained Coulson.
It's a great skill to have when studying engineering and physics. The teacher also learns who is getting it and who is not.
"The teacher gets a printout report after they go into the computer lab of how the students are progressing," said Ortega.
Jiji has been such a huge success at Anderson and at two other schools in the area, that this year 24 Silicon Valley schools have started using it. The ultimate goal is to produce a solid workforce for Silicon Valley companies.
"As you know, they've had to go outside the country to get some of the people that they have in their businesses today," said Ishiwata. "We don't want that. We have the people here, we have the youngsters here who are ready to take those jobs and we'll make sure that we get them prepared."