This Innovative Academic Program Teaches Math Through Basketball

BallMatics is proving to be a winning combination for Toronto students.

BallMatics FoundersPhoto: Kate Dockeray
Co-founders Dave McNee and Claudia Mandekic help athletes succeed at school.

Sometimes one plus one does equal three, as was the case when Dave McNee met Claudia Mandekic 14 years ago. McNee, then 27, was at a dentist appointment in Toronto when he started chatting with Mandekic, 30, who was working the front desk there while studying to be a teacher. When she told McNee how hard it could be to get students excited about math, her favourite discipline, he made a surprising suggestion: “Why not throw in something they enjoy, like sports?”

The idea of mixing basketball and mathematics got its first shot a couple years later, in 2011, when the now-colleagues—who had launched a tutoring non-profit—were invited to run a summer-school program for kids who’d failed Grade 9 math at Georges Vanier Secondary School.

When the students showed up for their first day, they weren’t exactly thrilled, says Mandekic. Over the next few hours, she and McNee gave the kids techniques to improve their shooting while also helping them calculate their field-goal percentage—which, in turn, taught them about fractions and decimal points.

At the end of the game, the winning team was determined based on which group had the highest total percentage and had done the most efficient math. “When the bell rang, they were so fixated on collecting their data and figuring out which team won that they didn’t leave,” says Mandekic. “I realized we might be onto something.”

The classes, later named BallMatics, soon spread to other Toronto schools. “I was terrible at math,” says Duane Douglas, who was a Grade 8 student enrolled in a fast-track summer program in 2014 when the founders came to Oakwood Collegiate Institute.

“But once I started BallMatics and realized the sport I loved was directly tied to math, it made me a lot better at it,” says Douglas. “Every time I played basketball, I was thinking about math.”

Almost any math problem, McNee and Mandekic realized, can be taught on the court. Kids can learn how to navigate an X-Y grid to find their next shooting spot or absorb the basic principles of trigonometry based on the angle at which they release the ball.

Since its founding, BallMatics has been hitting only net. After-school programs were added, as well as a dozen teachers, coaches and volunteers. And in 2019, the organization landed a lease for a 10,000-square-foot space in Toronto’s west end.

McNee and Mandekic have since established a private high school there called Uchenna Academy. At the school, which has 26 full-time students and provides subsidies for those who need financial assistance, kids with elite basketball skills can study all subjects, train at their sport and work part-time helping out with the BallMatics after-school programs.

Currently, Uchenna serves only boys, but as more girls join BallMatics, McNee hopes to change that. And for anyone who can’t make it to the courts, the organization recently rolled out an app that can teach math through basketball off campus.

For three of the school’s first graduates, the value of BallMatics is clear: last year, the boys landed university scholarships for their performance in the classroom, not on the court. (Though they also made the basketball teams.)

While he was in high school, Douglas—now 20 and earning a degree in education—split his time between Oakwood and Uchenna. He believes the school’s commitment to academics is the key reason it’s been a winner.

“If we didn’t do our work, we weren’t playing at the game,” he says, explaining that coaches would bench kids who didn’t keep up in class. “At Uchenna, we were student athletes, after all, not athlete students.”

Next, read up on the volunteers who are helping Canadian seniors become computer-savvy.

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada