Making TouchMath tangible

Janet Bullock is founder of Innovative Learning Concepts, which produces the TouchMath program for teaching mathematics. Photo by (CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE)

Janet Bullock and three fellow teachers developed the TouchMath program 33 years ago to help a handful of sixth-grade students learn basic mathematics.At the time she started the company, Bullock was a teacher in Colorado Springs School District 11. She eventually quit her teaching job and focused full-time on running Innovative Learning Concepts Inc., eventually buying out her co-founders.Bullock, 66, is a Manitou Springs native who earned a teaching degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a master's degree in elementary education from Colorado College. She also taught in Academy District 20.What started as a small business out of her home and generated $20,000 in sales its first year has grown into a company that employs 12 people in a north-side office building and last year generated about $8 million in sales.Innovative Learning sells an entire product line centered around the TouchMath program, which includes reproducible worksheets, classroom wall posters and hands-on learning materials used in schools in 50 states and 22 other countries.Bullock said the company has grown rapidly in the past two years, with sales increasing 40 percent in 2006 and 2007 as some of the nation's largest schools districts, including those in Houston and Los Angeles, have begun using the TouchMath program.Question: How was the TouchMath program developed?Answer: I was teaching sixth grade in District 11 and we had seven students who couldn't add, subtract, multiply or divide. One couldn't even count to 100 consistently. Lyn Strand (a co-founder) was the special education teacher and we came up with the system of TouchPoints to associate the quantity with the numeral. As I watched kids count, I saw where they would touch parts of the numeral to count. Once we put TouchPoints on the numeral, the children could actually add. They helped us figure out how to use the same system to subtract by counting backwards and multiply or divide by counting in multiples.Q: How did it turn into a business?A: It went from a hobby to a business because we first started using it in our classrooms, then other teachers started using it. We started doing seminars about the program to show teachers how to do it. They would ask where the materials were. While it seemed self-evident to us that you didn't need materials, other teachers asked for materials so we developed some. We started with a three-ring binder that sold for $7. We created them by tracing the materials on my glass kitchen table with a lamp under it so you could see what you were tracing. After four years, I left my teaching job.Q: How did the business grow?A: We started out running the business out of my house in one of the bedrooms. It grew into a second bedroom, then an entire floor and later we took the garage, too. That is when we decided to rent a building in Manitou Springs; we had been in business for seven years and had five employees. I used my retirement money to fund the business because finding funding for educational businesses was very difficult. I was a teacher who had no background in business. Libby (Yaple, another co-founder) and I even worked second jobs waiting tables to keep the company together. I read all these selfhelp books to keep me going. Otherwise, I probably would have returned to teaching. We finally turned the corner in the late 1980s, when we made a profit and could pay our own bills. Jack Riley - who had an extensive corporate background in business, finance and marketing - joined the company in 1989 as chief executive and played a major role until he passed away in 2004. He made significant contributions to packaging, catalog design and distribution and our financial and business models.Q: Why do American children have difficulty learning math?A: We are asking children to memorize what they don't understand. You have to understand something to learn it. If kids see three apples, they understand that, but if you show them the numeral three on a page, it just looks like a squiggle on a page to them; it doesn't convey the quantity. You are teaching kids to memorize something that is abstract, but they don't always understand that. We developed the TouchPoints so that the children understand the connection between the quantity and the numeral. Touching is the most basic way to learn. Our system allows teachers to use all three learning styles at once - tactile, visual and auditory.Q: Where will the company's growth come from in the coming years?A: We have a huge demand from parents who are homeschooling their children or want supplemental material at home in addition to what their children learn in the classroom. That is why we have gone to downloadable materials on the Internet. We also are selling pre-kindergarten materials because education is changing to make pre-kindergarten the new kindergarten and kindergarten the new first grade. We also were commissioned by the Los Angeles Unified School District to develop a whole summer-school set of materials that we have rolled out nationally.Q: Do you plan to sell the company or retire?A: I probably get four acquisition offers a year and I always turn them down because I would like to work as long as I can - I want to keep my mind active. I could retire; it is a choice I make every year whether to sell the company or hire someone to manage it for me.CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0234 or wayneh@gazette.com. Questions and answers are edited for space and clarity.

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