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Opponents of my kids’ math program have their calculus all wrong

The Calculus Project puts underrepresented students in a cohort of their peers and empowers them to soar. What’s so discriminatory about that?

A student in the Calculus Project at Brookline High School wrote in his notebook in 2015.Jim Davis

On a hot day last summer, I roused two reluctant teenagers for what I anticipated would be an important experience, but also one I hoped they wouldn’t resent me for.

My 13- and 14-year-old boys were about to begin participating in a math program that would convene for three weeks on the campus of our public high school in Milton. The Calculus Project, which is offered in seven districts in Massachusetts and one in Florida, builds math skills in BIPOC and low-income students in grades 8-12. Its curriculum celebrates math and science scholars of color, providing inspiration and models of future selves for youths who have long been unable to see themselves reflected in these fields. It is the brainchild of Adrian Mims, whose research on excellence with equity inspired him in 2009 to create a program that would increase the representation and success of low-income students and students of color in high-level high school math courses — a key predictor of college success. His clear-eyed approach emerged out of a mindset of abundance rather than the deficit mindset that so often plagues educational policy. What if, rather than lament the achievement gap, we placed underrepresented students in a cohort of their peers and empowered them to soar? What if we created the conditions to excite students about what they are learning?

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When they took the course, my boys — both diligent students but typical middle schoolers — were less than thrilled to have to “do math all summer.” Still, as parents we insisted that they participate based on what we knew about Mims’s vision and the stellar reviews from parents whose children had attended. By the end, my boys were grateful to have had the opportunity to learn in a community of their peers and to think about math in a way that ultimately inspired them. In our predominantly white suburb, our Black sons have had few occasions to be surrounded by people who looked like them in every class.

Today the Calculus Project is being targeted by a conservative group of parents who argue that it is “discriminatory.” On Feb. 14, a national parent organization filed a complaint against Milton Public Schools with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, arguing that the school district is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The group, Parents Defending Education, is using a well-rehearsed script that weaponizes civil rights law to undermine advances in racial equality and justice. The group claims that because the Calculus Project is intended for students of color and low-income students it is unfairly excluding students who do not fit into those categories.

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Juan Paniagua, (right) one of the tutors in the Calculus Project at Brookline High School, with a student in 2015.Jim Davis

Although the Calculus Project is geared to certain children, Mims has been unequivocal that no student of any race is turned away from participating. But, in a move now all too familiar in the post-Trump era, conservative white parents are deploying accusations of reverse discrimination to hoard opportunities. Their message is clear — the pie is not big enough for everyone to share, so whatever small slice others receive infringes upon their consumption of the entire pie. It is the same injurious logic that fuels attacks on how history is taught and seeks to dismantle affirmative action.

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Though this is certainly not their intention, the efforts of groups like Parents Defending Education actually serve to bolster the necessity for antiracist education. If these adults had been properly educated on the harms of structural racism and its longstanding social and educational repercussions for our society as a whole, they might understand the necessity of programs like the Calculus Project. If our education system had not failed these adults, they may have had the knowledge, humility, and depth of understanding to recognize where unfair inequities come from — i.e., discriminatory policies — and to know that our country has both a responsibility and an urgent need to address inequities through policy change. They may have understood that when entire groups of students receive fewer and worse educational opportunities, we leave immeasurable untapped human potential on the table.

As Heather McGhee astutely points out in “The Sum of Us,” while Black people are the primary victims of racism, it takes a toll on white people as well. And as research has long confirmed, when we serve the students who are the most marginalized, everyone benefits.

When I asked my sons and some of their friends about the impact of the Calculus Project, they shared the following: “It taught us about social justice and made learning math fun.” “I enjoyed getting to practice math while getting to talk with my friends.” “I liked being able to learn in a classroom with friends.”

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In other words, what resonated for these Black boys being raised in our predominantly white suburb was how the Calculus Project fostered their sense of belonging, which only increased their engagement and advanced them as math scholars. That alone should be enough for us all to champion the work of this program. As Mims declared in a statement about this attempt to stir controversy, “The mission and the work of the Calculus Project is the right thing to do. . . . Efforts to undermine this important work only strengthens our resolve to do what is right.”

Régine Michelle Jean-Charles is dean’s professor of culture and social justice and director of Africana studies at Northeastern University. Her most recent book is “Looking for Other Worlds: Black Feminism and Haitian Fiction.”