a passion for math

For seventh-graders with a ‘spark’ in math, the road to STEM careers starts at camp

Veronica Gonzalez, an eighth-grader at Manhattan’s M.S. 324, and Jennora Blair, an eighth-grader at East Side Community High School, attend a day of classes at Yale University.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Veronica Gonzalez, an eighth-grader at Manhattan’s M.S. 324, and Jennora Blair, an eighth-grader at East Side Community High School, attend a day of classes at Yale University.

Jennora Blair wasn’t about to miss her first real college lecture.

The 13-year-old middle school student from Brooklyn knew that “Darwin, Mendel and the Origins of Life” was about to start in Yale University’s William L. Harkness Hall. But as she walked quickly across campus, class schedule in hand, she didn’t know whether she was headed in the right direction.

“It’s like our first day of college. We don’t know where we’re going,” she joked.

Blair and her friend made it to watch the lecture on that recent Saturday morning, thanks both to a campus map and a growing nonprofit program that gives an extra boost to seventh-graders from low-income city schools with a certain “spark” for math.

Called Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics, or BEAM, the nonprofit launched in 2011 with a goal of shepherding promising students into careers in science, mathematics, engineering and computer science. Unlike other New York City-based programs that target black and Hispanic middle school students with a laser focus on getting them into a specialized high school like Bronx Science, BEAM is set on expanding students’ passion for math — and guiding them past high school into college and a career.

That starts with a three-week overnight camp the summer before eighth grade that immerses them in advanced mathematics. For the next five years, the staff focuses on getting the students into high-performing high schools, prestigious academic programs, and then college, offering application guidance and a new pool of connections.

“We try to be that informed and involved parent, where a lot of times — if they’re in a single-parent household and that parent works a number of jobs or doesn’t speak English — they don’t have those resources,” said Dan Zaharopol, the program’s founder and executive director.

Nearly 90 percent of the students in the program — which has grown to 250 current eighth-graders through high school seniors — identify as black, Hispanic or Native American, and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The median family income of the group is $25,000.

Nia Wallace, a current eighth-grader at Girls Prep Middle School, attends BEAM’s summer math camp at Bard College.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Nia Wallace, a current eighth-grader at Girls Prep Middle School, attends BEAM’s summer math camp at Bard College.

Zaharopol, who studied mathematics at MIT and the University of Illinois, said the program is meant to expose students to abstract reasoning and more challenging problem-solving than they get at their middle schools. But the trips to Yale and summer programs at local universities are also meant to address the non-academic challenges students are likely to face as they work their way into industries driven by science and math.

“I come very much from the hardcore math world where there’s an incredible lack of diversity,” he said. “We want them to be comfortable when they go to other programs where they’ll be doing advanced study, but where the majority of the kids are, frankly, going to be white and Asian and affluent.”

Dawntae Evans, whose 15-year-old son has been working with BEAM since middle school, said the program helped her son get into another math camp at Texas State University for six weeks. Since the start of the school year, he has also been going to Goldman Sachs once a month for a mentorship program.

“Sometimes it’s not so cool to be smart and it’s not so cool to like math,” she said. “But now he’s one of the cool kids.”

Kadijah Camilus, a current eighth-grader at M.S. 324 in Manhattan, attends BEAM’s summer math camp at Bard College.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Kadijah Camilus, a current eighth-grader at M.S. 324 in Manhattan, attends BEAM’s summer math camp at Bard College.

To find its students, BEAM partners with 35 district and charter middle schools where at least three-quarters of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The program doesn’t look at grades, state test scores, or past academic performance, focusing only on a math problem set and an interview.

That approach has worked well, Zaharopol said, and ensured that students who might have struggled early in middle school aren’t shut out.

By the summer after seventh grade, students are spending seven hours a day doing advanced math at Bard College and Siena College. This past summer, for example, 80 incoming eighth-graders worked in groups on single math problems that took up to three hours.

“You don’t know that it’s college math until the very end,” Blair said after working with her fellow 12- and 13-year-old campers to solve a problem. Her teacher later told them it was based on a concept that he didn’t understand until his second year in college.

“You feel like you’re doing math, but it’s not normal math,” she said. “It’s math that you really have to think about.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.