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Newton’s Calculus Project gets a $75,000 boost

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Tom Leighton is cofounder and CEO of Akamai Technologies.Kayana Szymczak

NEWTON — The Akamai Foundation has given the city's public schools a $75,000 grant to help boost the Calculus Project, a district-wide program aimed at narrowing the achievement gap for low-income students and students of color who show potential in mathematics.

The Newton program, modeled after one in Brookline, started in 2013 with just eight students who attended a summer session. It now includes 85 students in grades 7, 8, and 9 who attend after-school classes and a four-week summer "math camp." The grant will help support, enrich, and expand the program, according to School Superintendent David Fleishman.

The grant was announced Friday at Day Middle School, where Akamai Technologies cofounder and CEO Tom Leighton spoke to a group of eighth-graders who are taking part in the program.


Leighton, who said Akamai means "clever and cool" in Hawaiian, tried to use the example of Facebook to explain what the Cambridge-based content delivery network services company does.

"We make Facebook work," he said. "Who here uses Facebook?"

Not a single one of the eighth-graders raised their hands, and teachers explained the students have moved on to Snapchat and Instagram instead.

"Well, you all watch movies online, right?" Leighton asked. "We make it happen. And to make those movies play, we have to do a lot of mathematics, and that's why we're supporting this program.

"Math is really important to your future," said Leighton, who has also been a professor of applied mathematics at MIT.

The Calculus Project targets students who show an aptitude for mathematics after taking the MCAS tests in fifth grade and may not otherwise have the type of support to ensure they stay on track to eventually take calculus as seniors in high school, according to program coordinator Stephanie Chmura.

"The hope is that by building a strong cohort, they have each other's support," she said.


That support is exactly what students Viviana Bonilla and Carmen Chu said not only helps motivate them, but keeps the rigorous classes fun.

"We do a lot of group work, and we've all become friends," said Bonilla. "It's one of the reasons I stay in the program."

While the young women shyly admit they are pretty good at math, it doesn't just click, it takes work.

"It definitely doesn't come easily, but it's fun to have a challenge," Chu said.

"And we're lucky to be able learn what is possible for our future," Bonilla said.

Part of that future for students in the Calculus Project includes summer field trips to some of the area's top technology companies, possible summer internships, and even potential employment.

One of their visits this summer will be to Akamai. Leighton, who lives in Newton and whose children attended its public schools, invited students to visit the Cambridge offices "to see how the Internet works."

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at