Calculus Project lives on

Sofia Tong, Staff Writer

Before he took action, 60 to 70 percent of African-American students in Geometry Honors dropped down to Geometry Standard by second quarter every year, former Dean of Students Adrian Mims said.

“They had the same grades, they had the same recommendations from their teachers,” Mims said, “yet they weren’t succeeding at the same level as their white and Asian-American counterparts.”

According to Mims, examples like this of the achievement gap, or the difference in academic performance between African-American and Latino students and other demographics, pushed him to begin the Calculus Project.

Launched in the summer of 2009, the Calculus Project is an initiative to get more African-American and Latino students into AP or Honors Calculus by their senior year. It offers summer preview courses, a math tutoring center and an extensive staff support network.

The program is now being expanded with Mims, who left his position at the high school early this school year in order to replicate the Calculus Project elsewhere across the nation. He is currently working with other schools in Massachusetts, New York and Florida.

The Calculus Project faces another change this spring: it will graduate its original cohort of students. In 2009, Mims recruited a handful of rising eighth graders to participate in the program. A little more than four years later, those students are now seniors and will be the first members of the project to go to college and eventually join the workforce.

Numerically, the Calculus Project has proven effective in raising the grades and test scores of the students in the program and increasing the enrollment of African-Americans and Latinos in higher level math courses, according to African-American Scholars Program Director Chris Vick.

“We have more Scholars in AP Calc than I’ve ever seen in my career,” Vick said. “In 12 or 13 years we’ve had maybe one or two of my kids in AP Calc, and now we have six in AP, a whole mess of kids in Calculus Honors and even more in the pipeline for junior year.”

Mims said he realized he was making a difference when he saw the first cohort leave eighth grade and enter freshman year.

“I looked at how they performed in Algebra in the eighth grade and I saw that their MCAS scores had improved significantly,” Mims said. “I also noticed that when all of the students who participated in the Calculus Project enrolled in Geometry Honors, not one of those students withdrew from Geometry Honors.”

According to Mims, one of the key parts of the program is clustering, or grouping students from the Calculus Project into the same classes. Senior Alejandro Brown said this makes it easier for them to be engaged in class and work with others.

“I feel like we learn how to help each other,” Brown said. “You never have a class where you learn how to work in groups like this, and I feel like since it’s all people from the same background, they all want to strive to do their best. You learn how to work as a community.”

Senior Tahira Saalik said that clustering also helps prevent the isolation students can feel when they are the only one of their race in a class.

“I went to a predominantly white middle school and elementary school,” Saalik said. “Being in a program where people who look like me are doing as well as me or even better than me has been very warming.”

Math teacher Kari Buys said that close student-teacher relationships is another major factor in the Calculus Project’s success. Buys said she was surprised by how involved she has become in the lives of the students in the program, even though she only sees them once or twice a week.

Math teacher Meghan Kennedy-Justice said forming these relationships is a crucial step in creating an environment where students feel free to get help.

“It’s really a lot about building relationships with students, encouraging them when they struggle and literally saying ‘you can do it,’” Kennedy-Justice said. “When you have a good relationship with a student they feel comfortable coming to ask you questions, and that’s a big deal.”

Senior Gigi Gray said that it is clear how much teachers in the Calculus Project, like Kennedy-Justice, care about the wellbeing and success of the students, and this makes working with them comfortable.

“Ms. K-J is like the grandma of the Calculus Project,” Gray said, laughing. “We go to her whenever we need her.”

Mims said that his own conversations with the students in the Calculus Project have helped him improve the program in ways he never anticipated.

For example, Mims said he decided to hire students as peer teachers in classes, allowing them to bring in an income and not have to choose getting a summer job over going to the preview courses.

“The students who taught were already pretty strong math students, but because they were teaching alongside the teachers, it made them stronger,” Mims said. “For the students in the classroom, they had peer teachers showing them what it took to be a successful student. They actually formed relationships that were very positive and those relationships helped those students in the classroom increase their confidence and work harder.”

Now that Mims has left the high school, opinions about the fate of the Calculus Project are divided.

Brown said that the absence of Mims’ personal investment and ability to instill confidence in his students leaves the program at a disadvantage.

“He was honestly the man,” Brown said. “You could always go talk to him about certain things. Since he knew all the math he could help you with anything, so I would just stop by all the time. I can’t do that this year. I don’t want to say it collapsed because it didn’t, but it’s just not the same.”

However, others see a brighter future for the Calculus Project. Senior Rhiana Page said the teachers in the project have done a good job of keeping it functioning and organized. Gray said that Mims’ departure has actually made the project staff more determined to continue.

“I think if anything the program’s stronger now, because we know his expectations and we don’t want to see it fall off because he left,” Gray said.

According to Vick, the school must take collective ownership of the Calculus Project in order to not just sustain, but improve upon Mims’ efforts to close the achievement gap in mathematics.

“It does require this course to say ‘next man up,’” Vick said. “But I think the danger is sometimes it is easy to say, ‘Alright, the kids of color are going to do well because of the Calc Project’, but we’ve got to understand that the whole school has to share in the success of our kids, not just a couple of folks.”

According to Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator Joshua Paris, Mims’s role has been recently taken over by Buys and Associate Dean Melanee Alexander. Paris said that Buys’s job is to plan and update the curriculum of the summer courses. According to Alexander, her job is to review the goals of the program, meet with the parent advisory board and expand the program by recruiting more elementary school students.

“It’s kind of been stagnant for a few months, which is understandable with the change of leadership,” Buys said. “But with Dean Alexander and myself in place now, we’ll be able to discuss how we can keep pushing the program forward.”

The first cohort is moving forward as well, leaving this stage of their lives, Calculus Project and all, behind. However, the Calculus Project will not be only a memory after graduation.

According to Mims, the program will provide each student with a mentor that they can check in with, either in person or via technology, once they go to college.

Mims said he will be able to track the lifelong impact of the project, and also keep in contact with the cohort that he has formed a close bond with.

“I thank the kids for making the sacrifices they needed to make to be successful,” Mims said. “But I have every reason to believe that when they become older and they look back on this experience they wouldn’t change a thing, and they’d be very appreciative to everyone and the role they played helping them be successful as adults.”

Buys and Vick both said that the best gift the Calculus Project has left its students is a confidence in their abilities that will carry them throughout their lives, whatever field they may choose to go into.

Saalik aims to go into biology, Page is heading into the medical field, Brown is looking into business and Gray applied for a major in mathematics.

“Going on into college, I’m not sure if there’s going to be something exactly like the Calculus Project,” Saalik said. “But I hope there is a course like that for high-achieving blacks and Latinos, to show that there’s not only one black or Latino kid in an AP math class, that there can be a whole bunch of us.”

Sofia Tong can be contacted at [email protected]