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    A numeric cleric

    ‘Mr. Bill’ Slavins has been spreading the gospel about math at Largo High School since 1995. He has, students say, a special gift for helping them ‘get the hang’ of math.

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    Bill Slavins, a math tutor at Largo High, helps Sheila Marable with her math. He sets up shop on Tuesdays in the media center, giving one-on-one attention to about a dozen students each visit.

    By LORRI J. HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


    Bill Slavins, 73, calls himself the "master unconfuser" because he has a special knack for teaching math. After a few sessions with him, frustrated students say polynomials and parallelograms are no longer a mystery.

    "It helped us a lot, the way he explains things. It makes everything make more sense," said Jennifer Slane, 16, who worked with Slavins last year on geometry.

    Slavins, or "Mr. Bill" as his students call him, has been tutoring at Largo High School since 1995. Every Tuesday for the past five school years, he shows up at Largo High's media center at 8 a.m. and sets up a mini-schoolhouse. Throughout the day, about a dozen students stop by for one-on-one lessons.

    Before moving here, Slavins volunteered at Boca Raton High School for 12 years. He keeps a running tally of all of his pupils in a green steno pad. In small cursive, he jots down their names, their teachers' names and the date. It's the same way he has kept track of more than a thousand students over the years.

    His goal is to change students' attitude toward math.

    "I want a kid who said, "I hate math and I don't understand any of it,' to say "I think I'm getting the hang of it,' " he said.

    Mindy Hendrickson,17, said that she worked with Slavins last year and that learning geometry boosted her confidence.

    "It made me actually want to go to math class," Mindy said. "It makes you want to raise your hand."

    She and Jennifer, who is her best friend, said they caught on to geometry because Slavins used realistic, everyday examples. Often, Slavins cuts up tiny pieces of paper into triangles and trapezoids to teach them geometric principles.

    A creative approach also has helped Michelle Peters, 14, who has been working with Slavins on business math for the past few months.

    "It's a struggle trying to understand it, but he works with you to find out ways to solve problems," she said.

    Slavins has been so successful with the students that Angela Murphy, the school's community involvement coordinator, brings her 13-year-old son, Ryan, to Slavins for math pointers. Since he started working with Slavins a few weeks ago, his math grades have improved, she said.

    Slavins loves to pass on math tricks, but said he always asks pupils to do their assignments the way their teachers tell them to. "I don't want to get into any cat fights with the teachers," he said.

    Slavins doesn't like to interfere, but he does offer teachers a bit of advice: "Make the kids learn the multiplication tables."

    A lot of his pupils, he said, rely too much on calculators.

    Today, like other days, Slavins sat at a table in the media center surrounded by students, his 6-foot-4-inch frame towering over them. In a grandfatherly fashion, he scooted next to a student working on quadratic equations and said, "It's like a see-saw. What ever we do on this side, we have to do on that side."

    Before turning to another pupil, he cautioned: "Be sure you understand, because practice only makes perfect if the practice is correct." After a quick scan of her work, he said, "Beautiful, you got the hang of it."

    Sheila Marable, 16, said this type of personal attention meant the difference between success and failure.

    "He got me through a lot. He got me to the 11th grade," she said. "He actually sits here and explains everything. If you sit me down one-to-one I always understand." But she doesn't get that type of attention in her math class, which has 30 students, she said.

    Positive feedback like Sheila's makes volunteering a reward in itself, Slavins said. "My paycheck is their good test scores," he said.

    Slavins is a tutor, but his pupils say he's a whole lot more. He's a friend, a mentor and, if need, be a minister.

    Jennifer and Mindy said they thought of him as a friend because he asked about their families and really got to know them. To brighten their day, he often clipped out comics and presented them with "jokes of the day." Other times, he handed out stickers with positive quotations.

    Slavins, a West Point graduate, served 20 years in the military, where he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. Aside from tutoring, Slavins said he keeps his eyes out for worthy military academy prospects. When he spots a good candidate, he jots down their name in the back of his green steno note pad.

    The multifaceted Slavins even keeps a Bible in his briefcase.

    "You never know when a youngster needs a good reference," he said. "You can't be all things to all people, but you can try."

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