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Claremont Long Beach Math Collaborative, Year 3

The Gateway Subject

By Brendan Babish

Students around a table at the Claremont-Long Beach Math Collaborative

Although mathematics education is a concern for almost every school in the country, if our educational system were a battlefield, the triage unit would probably be rushing to assist African American males at North Long Beach’s Jordan High School.

Thankfully, the medics are on their way. The Claremont/Long Beach Math Collaborative is a new effort to house students from North Long Beach in Claremont for a month of math education over the summer. Success would not only open up a world of opportunity for scores of young men, but might provide a new model for math education in underserved communities across the nation. And it all started with a CGU student who was alarmed by his research findings.

First, there are two things you need to know to understand the problem. One is that high school students in North Long Beach have fallen behind students statewide in math performance. The other is that in this high-minority community, African American males have fallen furthest, with their math scores among the worst in the state.

This is partially why voters approved $1.2 billion in bonds for the Long Beach Unified School District, including $105 million to fund the modernization of Jordan High School in North Long Beach, the springboard for the North Long Beach Initiative. Moreover, this initiative has received the support of CGU’s School of Educational Studies (SES), with faculty and students facilitating community forums and surveys to identify educational and social needs.

For SES student Leon Wood, this partnership couldn’t have been more fortuitous. A Long Beach resident since 1987, Wood founded and served as pastor of the North Long Beach Community Prayer Center. Through the church, Wood and his wife Paula launched the Freedom School, a summer-reading enrichment program for inner-city youth.

And at CGU, his doctoral research has been inspired by what he witnessed through this outreach. Wood was not seeing North Long Beach’s children, especially young men, getting the education they needed to survive in the twenty-first century. This lack of preparation didn’t just affect individuals, but held back the entire community.

Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe, Leon Wood,
and SES Board of Visitor Roberta Jenkins

 “In order to effectively move forward, we need a certain amount of doctors, lawyers, engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and technical-skilled persons so that we can call it a community of people,” Wood said. “Without that, we’re going to keep recycling social issues and social problems and have an overdependence on governmental services.”

Wood realized that, while there is no panacea for all of a community’s ills, math comes surprisingly close. Math is the foundation of careers in lucrative fields involving computers, science, and technology. Trade professions also depend on mathematics: a welder has to understand trigonometry; a good plumber needs some background in geometry. Math also serves as a gateway subject for overall success in academia, which may be more important now than ever before. The unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma rose 6 points (from 4 to over 10 percent) from 2000 to 2010. For those without high-school degrees it got even worse: unemployment rose nearly 9 points (from 6 to almost 15 percent).

This is what makes the current state of mathematics proficiency in North Long Beach so alarming, especially for African American males. One way to measure proficiency is California State University’s Early Assessment Program exam, which tests college readiness in particular subjects. Though 12-13 percent of students statewide traditionally pass the exam every year, among African American males at Jordan High the number is usually less than 1 percent. And that is where Wood comes in.

In short, Wood’s idea – which eventually grew into the Claremont/Long Beach Math Collaborative – was to bring African American male students to Claremont for one month of math instruction over the summer. Claremont has classrooms, dormitories, and teachers. Claremont also has college campuses, which Wood thinks many, if not all, of these young men have never been to, unless they were there to play basketball.

“These kids may have been in the gym at Cal State, but they haven’t been in a laboratory or classroom setting like we have here,” he said. “Being on a college campus is so different than being in the inner-city. You don’t even walk outside at night in the inner city. Being here is exposure to a different kind of life.”

Last year Wood took this idea to then-President Joseph Hough, SES Dean Margaret Grogan, and his doctoral advisors, SES Professors David Drew and Daryl Smith who were quick to support the project. Drew, whose research focuses on improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, immediately recognized its potential.

“In today’s high-tech global economy, mastery of mathematics can help lift young people out of poverty into rewarding jobs and careers,” he said. “Providing these students from North Long Beach access to Claremont’s world-class mathematics instructors would go a long way in achieving that.”

The project also fit with SES’ vision: “The School of Educational Studies is committed to social justice and accountability,” said Grogan. “I was happy to support Leon’s idea, and to help change the lives of these young men.”

With his professors’ encouragement, partnerships and commitments followed, with Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe offering to host the students on her school’s campus and providing Harvey Mudd faculty to teach the students.

“I don’t think any other school or university in the country would have even given me an audience,” said Wood. “I wouldn’t have gotten the support I got from CGU anywhere else, because I don’t have a PhD. But they opened up everything for me here to see what I could do.”

SES’ Teacher Education graduates have already agreed to serve as instructors over the summer, even designing curriculum tailor-made for young men on summer break in partnership with Harvey Mudd and Pitzer Colleges’ math faculty.

“We want to make it fun, but the biggest difference is we want them to do critical thinking,” said Lisa Loop, co-director of Teacher Ed’s Internship Program. “We want them to talk to each other about math. We want them to see math as something you work on together, as something to solve real-life problems. This will help them create a community amongst themselves so they can support each other through the mathematics curriculum at Jordan High.”

The Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) has also been an instrumental program partner: they provided their current student data and math curriculum, and – led by the enthusiastic support of LBUSD Superintendent Chris Steinhauser and School Board President Felton William (who is also an SES alum) – have assisted in selecting program participants and securing additional funding. Troy Bennett, assistant principal at North Long Beach’s Hamilton Middle School, thinks this partnership could be a game-changer for many students: “In my experience as an educator, I’ve seen students change over the summer. I’ve seen kids who were focused come back and suddenly start getting in trouble. That’s why this program is so important. Ninth grade is often when we lose them.”

With that institutional backing, the Claremont/Long Beach Math Collaborative (CLBMC) was born, and developed rapidly. The math academy would last four weeks over the summer with 26 8th-grade graduates from North Long Beach middle schools attending. The teenagers would all be African American males and entering Jordan High School in the fall.

Best of all: the great outpouring of financial support meant these students wouldn’t pay a thing for the opportunity. The first contributions arrived in late 2010, when the project received several start-up gifts of $100-$200 from CGU alums and Long Beach city leaders. In February 2011, the American Honda Foundation gave $60,000. The next month, SES Board of Advisors member Roberta Jenkins donated $20,000, along with additional support from CGU Board Members Beverly Ryder and Virgil Roberts. And in March, the Wells Fargo Foundation added $25,000, which completed the funding necessary for the first year of the program.

Even better, pledges are already coming in for the 2012 and 2013 summer programs, ensuring that the CLBMC will be sustained for several years. However, Wood has much bigger plans for it than that.

The goal for the first year of the collaborative is to just ensure that the 26 students attending are on grade-level in algebra and ready to start geometry when they begin attending Jordan High School. However, these same 26 students will be invited to return the following summer, along with 26 more African American males who are about to enter high school. Eventually, Wood envisions a pipeline of around 100 students attending CLBMC, with older kids mentoring the younger ones and serving as much-needed examples of academic success. Ultimately, by the time they finish high school, Wood hopes that all CLBMC alums will have completed advanced placement (AP) courses and possess the math skills and study habits to be accepted at a major university.

Long-term plans for the collective include recruiting participants beyond African American males: “This is going to expand,” said Omar Safie, an SES doctoral student who serves as the school’s liaison to North Long Beach. “We know that Latinos are not doing well in math. We know the poor community in general is not doing well. We are starting small, but the goal is to expand to other genders and racial groups as well. We’re just starting with the most needy group.”

Like other effective intervention programs, CLBMC is rigorous and holistic, with a schedule that includes math classes in the morning and structured extracurricular activities in the afternoon. Gary Kelly, Harvey Mudd’s associate dean for student diversity, and Maggie Browning, Harvey Mudd’s vice president of student affairs and dean of students, have developed games that use elements of math for students to play. Roberta Jenkins and her husband Matthew have lined up several successful African American guests for the children to meet and learn from. There will also be movie nights and several other evening activities.

Bennett likes what he’s seen so far: “I have to commend the folks at Claremont, because they have an ambitious program. These kids are going to be worn out, which is good because a young mind needs to stay busy.”

In addition, parents of the children involved in the collaborative will be involved. While their sons collaborate in Claremont, parents will participate in parent-training classes in Long Beach. The goals of these trainings, conducted jointly by SES and Harvey Mudd, are to help parents understand their responsibilities and forge a partnership between them and their school district. “We know these kids can receive support at school, but if they don’t receive it at home they won’t be successful,” said Safie.

Judging from the community’s early response to the program, this support should be plentiful. “The students in my school who have been selected for this, they’re excited. They ask me about it every day. But their parents, that’s a whole other level of excitement,” said Bennett. “The kids don’t really realize what an opportunity this is. But the parents get it.”

While the Claremont/Long Beach Math Collaborative is still in its earliest stage, optimism can largely be attributed to the designation “collaborative.” This is a program that harnesses the potential of the Claremont Consortium, with CGU and Harvey Mudd partnering and receiving additional faculty assistance from Pitzer and even California Polytechnic State University, Pomona. Then there is the additional encouragement and assistance, from LBUSD, foundations, donors, and several individuals who are volunteering their time. For a project like the Claremont/Long Beach Math Collaborative, with ambitious, long-term goals, confirmation of success may take time, but with so many pitching in and pulling for these young men from North Long Beach, the beginning couldn’t be any more encouraging.

“I’ve just had total cooperation from everyone I approached about this project. This has already become something beyond my wildest imagination,” noted Wood. “Now let’s just hope that matches up with the experiences the kids will have over the summer.”


Strong Moves: The Claremont Long Beach Math Collaborative from Karen McMillen on Vimeo.

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