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Starting in Brookline, a math project quickly adds up

Melanee Alexander (right), the Calculus Project Director at Brookline High, talks to student Shaniyah Clouden.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

BROOKLINE — In the early 2000s, when longtime math teacher and then-dean of students Adrian Mims scanned Brookline High School's calculus and advanced-placement calculus classes, he saw few African-American students.

It wasn't as if they had shunned math. A significant number signed up for geometry honors as freshmen, but by senior year, only one or two black faces could be found in calculus class.

"[When] you look at honors and advanced-level math courses,'' Mims said, "in most cases the student population as a whole is not reflected. If you don't see that same diversity, then it means those school districts have a lot of work to do."

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This underrepresentation of blacks in advanced-level math courses prompted Mims in 2009 to create the Calculus Project, which has since expanded to other schools in the region, as well as to Florida and New York. The goal is to better equip African-American, Latino, and low-income students with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed at high-level math and beyond.

Students participate in monthlong sessions each summer, beginning before eighth grade and continuing until their senior year. The sessions preview the upcoming mathematics curriculum, and they're spiced by field trips focusing on careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. or STEM. The summer work is bolstered by after-school tutoring during the academic year.

Classes are taught by teachers in the school, unless the school specifically requests that others be recruited. Most of the costs — Brookline's started at $25,000 in 2009 and have risen to $65,000 — are borne by each district. At each school, the project works with teachers and coordinators to design a curriculum tailored for that institution.

"It was maybe one of the best experiences of not even just high school, pretty much my whole education,'' said Elizabeth Quiñonez, a recent Brookline High School graduate who participated in the project beginning in eighth grade. She is now a freshman at Harvard College, on a full scholarship. "It really did revolutionize my learning. A lot of kids in my class, [when] they were struggling, they had private tutors; they had people to help them. I didn't . . . have those resources.''

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Before creating the Calculus Project, Mims completed his dissertation at Boston College, focusing on students in Brookline. He found that 60 to 70 percent of black students who took advanced algebra withdrew from advanced geometry the following year. The comparable number for whites was 10 percent.

Through his research, said Mims, he found a striking thing: Some black students, feeling unwelcome or disconnected with their peers in geometry honors classes, would deliberately underachieve in order to drop down a level and feel more in their comfort zones.

With that in mind, one of the main goals of the Calculus Project became to foster a connection between all the students, encouraging them to collaborate, inspire one another, and reach out to the faculty when necessary.

Quiñonez said the result was all about feeling that you belong.

"It's not just about the academics," she said. "If you don't feel socially accepted and welcome in a class, or competent, then it won't work."

Mims left Brookline High School in 2013 after filing a racial discrimination lawsuit against the district, alleging that he was passed over for headmaster because he was black. He eventually settled for an $80,000 payment. He now collaborates with administrators at his former school to ensure their policies are inclusive ones, particularly when it comes to faculty recommendations for student honors and AP level placement.

The results of the initiative are clear. In 2013, before the first group of Calculus Project students became seniors, there was just one black student in AP calculus, Mims said. A year later, there were nine, seven of whom took part in the project.

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The impact of the Calculus Project is larger still. This year, 53 percent of Brookline High's black students scored "advanced" in the math section of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, compared with 18 percent in 2013, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"While we've made some advances, we still have disparities in outcomes . . . and we need to continue our work in our goals of educational equity," said Deborah Holman, the school's headmaster. "We're not anywhere near where we can be, so it's an ongoing project, ongoing work that the staff here are very committed to."

From its modest beginnings six years ago, the project now serves 200 students at Brookline High and has expanded to schools in Milton, Newton, Malden, and Cathedral High in Boston's South End. Also in Boston, students at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics & Science and TechBoston Academy attend a Calculus Project program at Boston University, the only one to charge a small tuition fee.

Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or Metco, programs in Wayland, Lynnfield, Arlington, Lexington, and Bedford also take part.

Outside the state, six schools in Orlando and one in Brooklyn, N.Y., have signed on. Overall, around 700 students take part each year.

The initiative's spread has not been without bumps in the road. This past August, the project's partnership with a New York-based nonprofit school support group came to an end. As Mims rebuilds his team, it's unclear whether the breakup will slow things down.

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The project, said Quiñonez, the Harvard freshman, is all about building up low-income and minority students.

"I have people to reaffirm me,'' she continued, "and tell me that I can, and to expect that from me . . . like it is not even a question, which is super powerful."


Cynthia Chen can be reached at cynthia.chen@globe.com.