“I am my sister’s keeper,
I love myself,
I love to learn,
I love to grow,
I’m a beautiful Black girl … and I love math.”
The students are members of Harmon’s after-school program Black Girls Love Math, or BGLM, a local nonprofit aiming to improve Black girls’ performance in the subject. The initiative is in its third year and now serves 300 students who are enrolled in private, charter and district schools in Philadelphia and Camden.
Based on what Harmon has seen in her 21 years in education, in different schools and cities, Black girls are usually active and high-achieving in math until middle school. Then, in the second half of school, they start to lose interest.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s report card, 55 percent of Black students are proficient in math at grade level as compared to 86 percent of White fourth graders. Though Black girls score better than Black boys, the group lags behind — more than double — White and Asian girls, according to the latest PSSA and Keystone proficiency numbers.
What’s more, there’s a clear correlation between Black girls’ achievement in math and Black women’s representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. A recent Pew Research study found Black women comprise only 1.8 percent of STEM occupations, as compared to 9 percent overall Black representation in STEM — and 47 percent of women in STEM.
This means Black girls and women are missing out on incredible professional opportunities. From now until 2031, the U.S. is expected to see more STEM jobs increase than any other field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Philadelphia, a national life sciences and innovation hub, is poised to be a big part of that growth.
These are statistics and facts Harmon knows instinctively, experientially, and through her own investigation. “I did a lot of research from December 2019 until about April 2020. And I decided that I wanted to incorporate and create a program after school for girls who excel in math and continue to push them forward to get into a STEM career,” Harmon says.
One Black girl’s — now woman’s — journey to teaching Black girls math
Harmon, who hails from Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane neighborhood, didn’t prepare herself in college to be a math advocate; she says it happened organically.
“I was actually really good at math,” she says. “I was in the fourth grade citywide math competition. In my senior year, my math teacher gave me the option to join honors math … I declined. I was in honors French, because I didn’t see, at the time, what a person could be outside of, like, an accountant. So I was just like, OK, I don’t want to know that much math.”
She graduated from Girard College, received her bachelor’s in human development and family studies from Penn State, and her master’s in human development from the University of Pennsylvania. Around this time, Harmon planned to go into public policy. Instead, she pursued her second master’s, this time in education from Teachers College, Columbia University, with a plan to have more impact as a school leader across all grades.
“A lot of the work I do with both teachers and students now is like: It’s OK if you don’t get this right away; it’s OK if this is hard. I believe in you, and we can work on this together.” — Atiyah Harmon
Harmon began teaching math at Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia and spent eight years as a math teacher for charter schools in the city. She then became director of curriculum instruction, then served as principal before moving to the network level at a charter organization around math, science and assessment.
Throughout it all, she took inspiration from her high school social studies teacher Richard Leek, who was also her track coach at Girard College. “It was the way he always showed up for the kids, not just us as athletes, but us as people,” she says. Leek died in 2014.
Marginalized group battles stigma
Research by developmental psychologists and social work experts found that Black girls face extra challenges in the classroom that prevent them from advancing in math. A 2021 study published by the Journal of African-American Women and Girls in Education reports Black girls use numerous defense mechanisms to cope with lack of support from teachers and competition with boys.
“Scholars who amplify the experiences of Black girls in STEM emphasize how they are “doubly marginalized” within school settings due to their experiences with racism and sexism,” the study states. “Thus, being overlooked and invisible can influence Black adolescent girls’ STEM identity.”
Akil Parker, who founded All This Math, a YouTube channel that provides math tutoring and instruction, says damage from stigmas about Black girls and math cuts deep.
“We think that math is not for us, as Black people. So then that leads us to take certain actions or not take certain actions,” Parker says. “So we may not take the action of saying, I want to become a doctor or I want to become a registered nurse; I want to become a computer scientist or I want to become a mechanical engineer.”
This is why, when Harmon founded BGLM in June of 2020, she approached the task as both an educator and an engager, developing a culturally relevant curriculum for girls in grades K-12. BGLM’s first step, she says, “is to get to know [students] as people and understand their backgrounds — and not that they’re just coming into your class to follow your directions. We unpack their math identity and their math fears and anxiety and then infuse that with a growth mindset.”
It’s also essential BGLM begins with the very youngest students, says Angela McIver, a former school board member and founder and CEO of Trapezium Math. McIver has long believed there’s not enough rigorous math instruction in elementary schools across the board.
“There is a huge emphasis on reading starting in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, but very little attention is given to math … By third grade, when they start to prepare for these tests, it’s too late.” — Angela McIver
“There is a huge emphasis on reading starting in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, but very little attention is given to math … By third grade, when they start to prepare for these tests, it’s too late,” she says.
Harmon says when you unpack the way math is taught, you’ll find a lot of self-defeating behaviors. If a student doesn’t know their fast facts by heart, then they’re seen as not being good at math — which is completely untrue, she says.
“A lot of the work I do with both teachers and students now is like: It’s OK if you don’t get this right away; it’s OK if this is hard. I believe in you, and we can work on this together. That’s the way you can get kids to say, I can do hard things, if you let them know you believe in them,” she says.
A program grows in Philly
BGLM teacher Angela Pressley has been with the program for a year and teaches full-time for the Mastery Charter Network. Pressley notes it’s important for Black girls to see Black women as teachers. “I think it gives them more of an inspiration, or an endpoint of knowing that could then be them.”
According to The Urban Education Policy and Research Annuals, “Black female teachers recognize themselves in their Black students. Thus, they are more apt to understand them.” Seventy-five percent of the educators who run BGLM are, says Hamon, Black women.
BGLM attracts students through two avenues. The first is partnering with a school for 24 weeks — twice a week in the fall and spring semesters. Some teachers let the girls self-select into the program; others recommend girls. And then there are weekend Saturday Slams in the fall and spring that are open to all Black girls from the region.
“We were too busy having fun that we really didn’t pay that much attention to us actually doing the math.” — Brynn Smith, eighth grader at St. James School
BGLM teacher Juanita Miller is in her second year working with BGLM and teaches full-time at St. James. “When the girls first come in, they are a bit timid or adverse to asking questions,” she says. “And then as time goes on, they open up more. They become more confident and more vocal. So, they speak up about what they want to see and how they want to learn topics.”
Participating schools — Mastery Camden McGraw School, Mastery Molina Upper Elementary School, Mastery Smedley Elementary School, Belmont Charter High School and Saint James School — pay the program to teach the students for the weekly sessions. The Saturday courses require tuition priced on a sliding scale of up to $500 for six weeks. The tuition cost covers instructors, snacks, space, and swag, and many students receive scholarships for the program. Harmon also helps District teachers who may need assistance with their students pro bono.
BGLM survives through grants and is supported by the Philadelphia Foundation, Giving Cycle, Independence Public Media Foundation, Center for Black Educator Development and the Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation.
Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington proposed a five-year strategic plan a little more than a week ago that includes investing in more instructional resources for math that would involve tutoring and revamping some curriculum.
“If we do these things, with fidelity, math proficiency will rise,” says school board President Reginald Streater.
Black Girls Love Math — here in Philadelphia
LaShaya Duval, the principal at Belmont Charter High School, vouches for BGLM as an educator and parent. She has a daughter in the fourth grade in Abington, who participates in Saturday Slam.
“Before the program, I felt like she wouldn’t try as much. Like if something seems a little hard, she wouldn’t try. But after she went through the program, she welcomes challenges in math,” says Duval. “And what I see as a principal is, a lot of times when we get to higher level math, my classrooms look less and less heterogeneous but more homogeneous” — meaning the higher level math classes will be boys and not girls.
“That’s what we want to instill, is the confidence to persist — that I got it!” — Atiyah Harmon
St. James eighth grader Brynn Smith says the program helps her build off skills she already had, making her better at certain things she already knew about math. “It helped my science grade, which went from a C to a B. I never really struggled with math, because I’m a math person, like, that’s a subject I’m really good at.”
“Teachers need to make it more fun,” Smith notes. “When we started and didn’t understand the topic we did Jeopardy where we answer math problems to get points … We were too busy having fun that we really didn’t pay that much attention to us actually doing the math.”
Mariah Williams, a seventh grader enrolled in BGLM at St. James, says her science grade went from a D to a B. “I think some kids just need extra help. Most kids are in a big class environment with more kids. I think they need a teacher’s assistant to help them with certain things, because being one person attending to 18 kids can be hard sometimes.”
Smith and Williams say their classmates for the most part hate math, because they either think the course is boring or that they need extra help. Williams wants to be a pediatrician or a boxer; Smith has her sights on being an architect, marine biologist or detective.
BGLM has begun moving the needle when it comes to getting Black girls more engaged in math. Their post-program surveys show increases in their students’ enjoyment of math, their belief that mistakes help them learn, their self-sufficiency, and their self-regard as mathematicians.
The organization also administers their own tests and measures students’ progress through school grades and the NWEA-MAP, the Northwest Evaluation Association-Measure of Academic Progress. BGLM’s longer-term hope is to get more girls enrolled in AP math courses and on track for STEM careers. For now, Harmon is most intent on improving her students’ perceptions of math — and their own abilities.
She recalls one fifth grader, in particular. “It was August 2021, and a student [a rising fourth grader] named Anna came in and didn’t like math at all,” says Harmon, “She hated it. It was a summer program at People for People Charter School. And she came every Saturday for six weeks. Though she didn’t like it, she was able to persist and still try. I went to her school in March of 2022 to check on her progress, and she had fallen in love with math … said it became her favorite subject. Fast-forward to fifth grade in October 2022, she said, ‘Math is a little harder, but I got it.’”
MORE ON IMPROVING EDUCATION FROM THE CITIZENLocal educator Atiyah Harmon, founder and executive director of Black Girls Love Math, surrounded by students before a math session at the St. James School in North Philadelphia. Photo by Johann Calhoun