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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”