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BEAM Me Up — to a Science and Math Career

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BEAM Me Up — to a Science and Math Career

Forbes September 19, 2017
OtherPhilanthropy

America’s “independent sector”—its civil society—is the best-funded and most robust in the world. It consistently develops new and effective approaches to some of the nation’s most serious social problems. Since 2001, the Manhattan Institute has sought to identify and recognize some of the most promising social entrepreneurs and the new non-profits they’ve founded, based on their own original ideas. The more than 50 winners of the Richard Cornuelle award, named for the writer who coined the term independent sector, have addressed challenges as diverse as teaching English to new immigrants, building facilities for charter schools, helping older Americans “age in place,” developing science and engineering curricula for high schools, and helping African-American college students continue through to graduation. Most are supported entirely by private philanthropy. This is the second of four columns in which I’ll profile this year’s winners of the Cornuelle award.

New York's Bridge to Education in Advanced Mathematics looks for kids who want to fall in love with math--but are stuck in schools which don't help them do it.

Gaining admission to one of the small number of selective public high schools in New York City is no mean feat—and, in recent years, the fact that small numbers of African-American and Hispanic students (21 and 83, respectively, of 3350 students) have been admitted to schools such as Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science has sparked controversy. At a small office not far from Wall Street, Daniel Zaharopol and Lynn Cartwright-Punnett devote themselves to lifting those numbers—not, however, by advocating changed admission standards or racial or ethnic quotas, as some have proposed. Instead, they begin with sixth- and seventh-grade students in 35 of New York’s middle schools with the most disadvantaged students, identifying those with exceptional raw ability to succeed in high-level mathematics. The stakes are high for such students; they are at risk of being funneled to one of the 40 percent of New York high schools which offer no math at all beyond Algebra 2.

“We are looking,” says Zaharopol, to find those who, once exposed to challenging problems, “fall in love with math.” Zaharopol knows whereof he speaks; the founder and executive director of Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM) himself holds a doctorate in mathematics from MIT—a background he has married with a dedication to teaching, reflected by the fact that his graduate education included a master’s degree in Teaching Mathematics. “I've long thought of education as a likely path in life, but I also knew that I wanted to create something. BEAM provides me with a great opportunity to do both, while also connecting me with the math I love so much.” His commitment to teaching—honed in “math camps” during his college years—is matched by that of Cartwright-Punnett, whose background includes three years teaching middle school math in New York’s predominantly Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood.

It’s a love the two have found a way to transmit to students who might otherwise have never discovered it. Identifying such students—today including 100 sixth-graders and 100 seventh-graders—involves an elaborate screening process that serves as the gateway to BEAM’s core programs: intensive summer sessions (including five weeks on a college campus) and long-term guidance aimed at college admission and, the overriding goal, a career in mathematics and/or science. It begins with what BEAM calls its “admissions challenge”—a set of problems administered in a test to sixth-grade students in its partner schools, where teachers may recommend students to take the test or students may just show up on their own, in response to posters.  Previous math grades do not matter;  only the ability to do well on the “challenge,” including providing a convincing answer to such questions as, “which of these problems did you like, and why?” So begins a series of screens, including further challenges to be completed over a week’s time, that winnow some 600 taking the initial challenge to 100 offered a place in BEAM—a first step, as it’s said, toward becoming “beyond proficient” and joining “the community of mathematicians.”

To do so, the sixth- and seventh-graders will go through BEAM’s intensive summer programs, taught, to a significant extent, by college and university math faculty looking for ways to reach those whom they would not ordinarily teach. They are the sort of “problem-solving”-focused curricula that are often central to math enrichment programs to which affluent families send talented kids; BEAM’s students, in contrast, come from households in which the median annual income is $25,000. BEAM seeks to “make sure our students get access to all the same enrichment opportunities their affluent peers already have: academic summer programs, robotics clubs, math teams, math circles, internships, and more. From advice on a scholarship application to support writing essays to explanations of how to contact program offices or start your own club, we make sure no hurdle prevents our students from getting on and staying on the existing STEM pathway.”

BEAM reports success in helping its students gain admission to selective New York public high schools—but as with many past Cornuelle award winners, it reports results which are credible because they are not universally positive.

BEAM tracks admission to selective and highly selective high schools, which provide high quality preparation for college.

PERCENT OF STUDENTS ATTENDING SELECTIVE HIGH SCHOOLS

Cohort Admitted to Selective Schools Admitted to Highly Selective Schools
2011 50% 38%
2012 47% 44%
2013 64% 56%
2014 53% 31%
2015 59% 43%
2016 61% 42%
 

Note that the first column, above, includes those admitted to highly-selective schools (that is, those in the second column.)

There is more than math taught, as well.  Notes Lynn Cartwright-Punnett, “We focus on what the selective schools are like, so that they can be prepared to handle it.” The social transition is, they say, both easy and hard. “Nerdy” students (evenly divided between boys and girls, notably) who may have been ostracized in the younger grades suddenly find other students with whom they have a great deal in common. At the same time, BEAM students who do reach schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant will find themselves among a handful of African-Americans and Hispanics in schools which have become predominantly Asian. (For the entering group of 2016, three BEAM students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School, two to Bronx Science and 10 to Brooklyn Tech, all schools where African-Americans and Hispanics are under-represented.)

BEAM has grown gradually since it opened its doors in 2011 with a summer program for just 17 students—of whom it is in touch with 14, 13 of whom are enrolled in college (the 14th in a “productive gap year”). It now has 400 alumni; this is the first year it has enrolled both sixth- and seventh-graders. Colleges where alumni have enrolled include Vassar, Bard, Sienna, and State University of New York schools. An afternoon meeting with a small group of current BEAM seniors finds a group of upbeat and expansive students, quick to credit BEAM with having “opened doors I never knew existed.” With one exception (a Nigerian immigrant), those in the group of seven all stood to be the first in their families to attend college. BEAM is poised to expand to the nation’s second-largest school system, that of Los Angeles. BEAM’s $1.2 million budget relies neither on government nor on student fees (the latter a subject of internal debate). Key funders include the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, to whom  BEAM refers students for potential scholarship aid.

There seem to be countless programs aimed at lifting the most disadvantaged students. Certainly, there is a need and a place for such efforts. BEAM impresses thanks both to its dedication to serving an acknowledged social and economic need—top-quality math and science majors from all backgrounds—and its unabashed willingness to identify those with the greatest talent and to help them realize what might otherwise be wasted potential. Few can rival stories such as that of a young Muslim woman, daughter of Yemeni immigrants, who obtained an internship at Morgan Stanley to work on cybersecurity. Moreover, there is clearly a sense of joy, accomplishment and comradeship among the BEAM participants. Upon meeting them, one cannot help but be optimistic about them—and more.

Daniel Zaharopol operates on the premise that math and science talent is widely, and likely evenly, distributed in the population. The idea that those who would love math as much as he might never experience that love pains him—and, through BEAM, he’s doing something about it.

This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com

______________________

Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Photo: Learning Math at BEAM
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