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.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.