As Detroit’s leaders debate the financial crisis of one of America’s largest urban centers, and what that means for the next generation, they should be paying attention to some real evidence-based transformation taking place not at city hall or in the corridors of power, but rather in a program called Math Corps.
It is not a program that is seeking to be in the limelight or wanting to grab the latest educational headline, but one that is knee-deep in the trenches helping to change the lives of students coming from debilitating backgrounds and broken homes.
Math Corps, a combined academic enrichment and mentoring program at Wayne State University envisioned by Dr. Steve Kahn with Leonard Boehm in 1992, has since become some sort of a Damascus experience for every child from Detroit Public Schools in grade 6-12 enrolled in the program.
The educational and lifetime opportunities that the program provides for tomorrow’s leaders, that includes its flagship six-week intensive summer program that serves 400 students, were explained to me during a recent encounter with the teachers and students of Math Corps.
“It’s never been about math. It was always about a greater thing to help the children of Detroit,” said Professor Kahn. “What I‘ve come to learn in 20 years is very powerful. There is a human tragedy in this city. Most of the kids that come to us are missing parents, at least one.”
The challenge to help shape the lives of children who are disadvantaged because of their background is a calling for Kahn.
“Math Corps has developed a powerful philosophy where the students can thrive in a culture built around kindness and support for each other, and the courage and willingness to do the right thing,” Kahn said. “It’s about intervention. urgency and transforming lives.”
The mission of the program is clear: the unwavering belief that all children have a unique and special greatness within them, and that through hard work and a commitment to excellence and with the support of a caring family or community, that greatness can be realized.
Nicole Plummer, one of the students in the program majoring in math and secondary education, was clear about how she views society and why Math Corps meant so much to her .
“Our system is failing us. We need more people out there to say to a child ‘I believe in you. I know you have greatness,’” Plummer said in an uncompromising voice that cries out for the attention of those in government and leadership.
Plummer’s remarks point to a deeper problem in our community and the extent to which students feel encouraged to work harder in a conducive environment. Her colleague, Darryl Gardner, who has been with the program for more than a decade and whose brother is now an air traffic controller, came up through Math Corps and took it further.
“The needs of children are been put aside for the needs of adults,” Gardner said, noting that the program has been their most rewarding experience in education.
But Gardner hopes those in charge of the distribution of resources to make Detroit an education city look at their program as a model. Because they are, in fact, a testimony to how lives can be transformed not by bureaucratic measures but by a model that emphasizes every child’s particular greatness.
Sajeda Ahmed, a biology major, agrees.
“What Math Corps does is put the individual back in education. What we have learned is invaluable,” Ahmed said.
Plummer said because of how her life has changed as a result of the program, “my friends are now in Math Corps because I started taking back home in my neighborhood what I learned.”
Arthur Bowman, who is majoring in physics and has become a mentor to Math Corps students, said, “The program has instituted in me the need to bring other people along. They gave me my humanity back and I have the need to give back.”
Bowman said the many different reforms taking place in education do not necessarily serve students well. He cited many instances where he is mentoring children in the program who are not only coming from deeply wounded homes, but also from experiences that stand to tear their souls apart.
He said while politics is deciding on many fronts the future of education for Detroit kids, whether it is the appointment of an emergency manager or local elected officials, there are kids literary on the edge every day and who need a serious mentorship and appreciation for their potential.
“What we need is emergency ideological management,” to address kids in crisis coming to school, Bowman said.
Meagan Spencer, whose major is in nutrition and food science, said growing up in Detroit she has seen and experienced a lot and believes that what is often missing is the lack of passion and love that children face in the classroom.
“If the person who is teaching does not place value on you or have an interest in education, it is challenging,” Spencer said.
Richard Pineau, interim program coordinator, said that is why the program which features faculty and college students as mentors provides middle school kids with mature role models like big brothers and big sisters.
“We have to demonstrate that we care,” Pineau said. “We have a college student whose job is to open the door for the kids when they come in.”
Joseph Ratcliff, a graduate of the program and now a full-fledged teacher, said in dealing with students, “you have to actively show you care. We actually tell them that they are great. This has really been affirming.”
Students have who participated in the Math Corps for at least three summers have an average ACT math score of 21, significantly higher than Detroit’s average and on par with state and national averages.
And since 1995, estimates have placed the high school graduation rate for Math Corps students at over 90 percent
with about 90 percent of those students going to college.
“My family would always tell me if you can just change one life, that’s enough,” Kahn said. “We need a systematic profound change in the city because these are our kids growing up.”
The Math Corps program reads like a triumph of the human spirit where our children are given hope in hopeless neighborhoods. Now, our leaders must respond because beneath the debates about financial crisis, this is one case of real change taking place.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of a six-part series on the Obama presidency, including “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published last year. His latest book is ”Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue written by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. His upcoming books in 2012 are “Obama and Jewish Loyalty” and ”Obama and Business Loyalty.” Listen to him every Thursday morning on WDET 101.9 FM Detroit and every Sunday, 9 to 10 p.m., on “The Obama Watch” program on WLIB 1190 AM-New York. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.