For the past seven summers, hundreds of students have been gathering at churches across the state of California to study algebra.
The students are taking part in a unique program sponsored by California State University through a partnership with African-American churches.
The Summer Algebra Institute targets black students, but no one is excluded from the program. This year about 80 percent of the participants are African-American.
The institute is primarily for middle school students who are performing below grade level in math, but the program also welcomes a few 9th graders who are struggling with the subject as well.
Jacqueline Mimms is the associate vice president for enrollment management at California State University, Bakersfield. And she runs the program as its principal investigator.
“It’s designed to prepare them for higher-level math,” said Mimms. “We try to take the fear of math or the feeling that they can’t do math away, so that they’re eager to take math all four years in high school.”
The program runs for six weeks, and this year it’s operating at 18 different sites in every region of the state. About 30 students attend each location.
Credentialed math teachers lead the instruction with the assistance of two tutors. The tutors are college students or high-achieving high school students. In many cases they’re successful graduates of the program.
The instructors focus on teaching the students new ways of solving problems. So students learn things such as the lattice method. And the teachers also provide them with cultural lessons about the subject.
“In addition to the regular math teaching, there’s also a cultural curriculum involved where students learn a little bit about where math originated,” said Mimms. “Suddenly, they realize that people like them are the originators of math. They study about Benjamin Banneker. They study the pyramids. At the end of the six weeks, they have a new understanding. They come out with pride and skill building. Those two things propel the kids to move forward.”
Students have to apply for the free program, and only those who test at least at the 5th grade level are allowed to participate. During the six-week algebra institute, students are in class Monday through Friday and work on math for five hours each day.
“We challenge the children,” said Mimms. “Our approach is to push the children, and we see that by pushing them they reach a higher level.”
The students are tested again at the end of the program, and Mimms said most improve by at least a grade level.
Photo: A teacher leads a lesson during the Summer Algebra Institute. (Credit California State University)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.