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Ideas We Should Steal: MathCorps

A local math teacher is trying to bring a successful Motor City tutoring program to Philly. The secret ingredient? Love

On a wintry Saturday morning in the basement of the Lillian Marrero branch of the Free Library in North Philly, what can best be described as a math love-in was having some surprising results. Seven math-challenged seventh graders huddled over worksheets with a high school tutor, accomplishing what none of them could have expected when they walked in: They were doing math. Willingly. Happily. And, in some cases, quite well.

“As it turns out, all the kids at tutoring were bright—but you wouldn’t have known it looking at their math scores,” says David Shen, visionary/founder of MathCorps Philly, which ran the 10-week Saturday morning tutoring program last winter. “When they got some one on one attention, you could see it. They just needed the opportunity, that’s all.”

For the last 20 years, Shen has tutored and taught remedial math at Drexel, Temple and other area universities, where he says he routinely turned D students into B students. But he discovered his true passion six years ago, when he happened on a PBS documentary about MathCorps at Wayne State University in Detroit. Started in 1992, the tuition-free program pairs struggling middle schoolers with high school tutors, who in turn work with college students and university mathematicians, for a sort of mentorship chain letter with some amazing results.

After their six-week summer camp, MathCorps Detroit’s 400 students on average raise their test scores from 30 percent in a pre-camp assessment to 90 percent at the end of camp. And they go on to succeed in school: MathCorps alums have a 90 percent high school graduation rate, far higher than the Detroit average.

For Shen, it was like discovering that a complicated string of numbers were all related. The methods MathCorps teachers used were similar to those he deployed in classrooms around Philly; the effort to make math fun and to engage students beyond the textbook—all were hallmarks of Shen’s teaching style. “By the end of the show, I was crying,” Shen recalls. “I knew this is what I was meant to do, as if all my previous 20 years was preparation for this.”

After their six-week summer camp, MathCorps Detroit’s 400 students on average raise their test scores from 30 percent to 90 percent. Its alums have a 90 percent high school graduation rate.

Shen knew this was an idea he wanted to steal for Philadelphia. Soon after, he spent a week in Detroit, at Wayne State’s MathCorps summer camp. That’s when he says he saw that MathCorps was about more than math. He watched relationships form between high school tutors and their middle school students; the way college interns took the high schoolers under their wings; the way the students learned to understand each other in ways their adult teachers never could. He came home with MathCorps’ successful curriculum—the best he says he’s ever seen in his years of teaching—but also with an almost spiritual take on what he sees as the true mission of MathCorps.

“MathCorps is really about love and compassion,” he says. ”It’s about compassionate people who happen to be good in math.”

Could it work here? So far, it’s been a slow start for Shen, who ran Drexel’s busy Math Resource Center until 2012, when he quit to devote his time to MathCorps. Since then he has also  partnered with Chalon Downs and Nneka Kirkland, co-founders of a tutoring company, Citywide Math and Science Institute. This school year, he hired his first college intern from Temple, where he’s an adjunct math instructor, and recruited tutors from area high schools, particularly Science Leadership Academy, where service learning is built in to the curriculum. Shen says he started his pitch with the “love and compassion” line, and then looked for the kids whose eyes lit up. But he also held them to a strict standard: If they arrived late for tutoring, they were sent home.

“As it turns out, all the kids at tutoring were bright—but you wouldn’t have known it looking at their math scores,” says Shen. “When they got some one on one attention, you could see it. They just needed the opportunity, that’s all.”

In MathCorps’ first program over the winter, seven seventh graders spent three hours over 10 Saturday mornings working one-on-one with a tutor. To qualify for the program they needed to meet two criteria: A willingness to work hard; and need. (“And we define ‘need’ broadly,” Shen notes.) Almost from the start, Shen says, he saw the same magic happening here that he observed in Detroit. One boy came with a letter from his school explaining that he has ADHD, and had stopped even trying to get Ds; now he was failing seventh grade. After one session, the boy’s SLA tutor gave Shen a progress report: The seventh grader couldn’t do a math problem when it was written down. But when it was read to him slowly, he answered every one correctly—but no one had ever taken the time to do that with him. “He’s actually really smart,” the tutor said. “He’s not an F student, really. He’s more like a B student.”

During another session, a reluctant student confided in his tutor why he so dislikes math: He said he felt ashamed because he works so slowly that no one else in his class ever wants to partner with him on group problem-solving projects. “I couldn’t believe she got him to say that,” Shen says. “It’s because these are kids working with other kids. They know how to get them to open up.”

By the end of the 10 weeks, Shen says the students’ progress exceeded even his expectations. Kids who had avoided math homework, started doing their school assignments at home. One student went from getting Fs to getting a C, another from a C to a B. They were engaged in math in a way they hadn’t been all school year. And, Shen says, they ended the 10-week session with something else: Love. “We asked all the kids what MathCorps meant to them, in one word,” Shen says. “One boy, who never brought his work in, didn’t seem to care, told us it meant ‘happiness.’ I was blown away. He felt love here, and had fun.”

Shen is hoping to launch a six-week, 8-hour summer camp this year, with at least 20 students—if he can raise the money he needs to pay for his intern, tutors and supplies. He is pitching his idea to a few local funders in the coming weeks, and started an IndieGoGo campaign that still has a few weeks left. He hopes to one day replicate Detroit’s numbers, of 400 students every summer who raise their pre- and post-program scores by 60 points. So far, though, he’s falling short of the $20,000 he needs to get MathCorps off the ground.

Shen says he has not yet pitched his idea to the District because he thinks it would not help. But he may be surprised: Under Superintendent Hite, the District has shown more openness to outside programs with a proven track record—like Springboard Collaborative, which, like MathCorps, keeps kids learning during the summer.

Either way, Shen is not giving up. He says he’ll run the program this summer, with a bare-bones budget, even if for only a few students at a time. The winter session only made him more sure that this is his purpose, and that math can be a path to salvation for students in this city.

“If kids in seventh grade aren’t engaged in school, they can go down a path that leads them to a pretty bad place,” Shen says. “We at Math Corps have the opportunity to change that track. That’s an amazing thing.”

To contribute to MathCorps Philly’s fundraising campaign, visit its IndieGoGo page.

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