A few weeks before summer, David Shen and his partners, Nneka Kirkland and Chalon Downs, smooth a marker-flecked poster across a table between us, beaming over photos of Philadelphia’s brightest up-and-coming mathematicians.
At least, that’s what the trio sees when they look at the pictures, of middle school students they’ve known since last summer—math scholars, one after the other.
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Shen, Kirkland, and Downs lead the Philadelphia campaign for Math Corps, a tutoring program founded in Detroit to provide free summer math support for underprivileged middle school students that has now expanded to Cleveland, Utica and Philly. It works on a unique model: Instead of offering their students the traditional teacher-student relationship, the adults of Math Corps Philly are there just to facilitate the program. The learning is peer to peer—college students oversee high school students, who in turn tutor the middle schoolers.
Shen, or “Uncle Dave” as he’s known around his students, was excitedly organizing Math Corps’ first summer camp in Philadelphia when the Citizen last connected with him in 2015. A 20-year math teacher at Temple, Drexel and other universities, Shen had felt a calling to start Math Corps here after watching a PBS documentary about Detroit’s program that seemed to echo his mission and his style of reaching students. “By the end of the show, I was crying,” Shen recalled in 2015. “I knew this is what I was meant to do, as if all my previous 20 years was preparation for this.”
That first summer, Math Corps Philly assembled two teams of 10 middle schoolers, five high schoolers, and one college student each. Each middle school student was paired with another middle school student and a high school student, and these trios worked through all the academic challenges Shen could throw at them together.
The program and its subsequent winter tutoring session was so successful that in 2016, the number of students that Math Corps Philly enrolled doubled. This upcoming summer, Shen, Kirkland, and Downs are expecting to organize about 85 students within the program—a tall order considering that the group is still operating out of Kirkland’s house. But the three welcome any applicants who need the support the program can provide and who demonstrate a willingness to work hard.
Working hard—while having fun—is the key to Math Corps’ success. Kirkland, who handles disciplinary issues, cautions that violence of any kind is forbidden, and being late to morning assembly even once, can cause a student to be dismissed from the program. The high standards seem to yield results—parents report drastic behavioral changes in their children after time in the program, and some students who once acted out in class now lose themselves happily in their studies.
Math Corps Philly’s students began at the 28th percentile when they took assessments at the beginning of the summer; four weeks later they rose to the 95th percentile.
The results are in the math, too. Last year, Math Corps Philly’s students began at the 28th percentile when they took assessments at the beginning of the summer; four weeks later they rose to the 95th percentile. Their progress is demonstrable through more than just numbers: the co-founders collect journal entries from their students every afternoon, grade homework from every student daily, and conduct evaluations of the program from students, parents, and even the founders of Math Corps in Detroit to ensure they are always improving how they do things.
The students, it turns out, have done some incredible things. Kirkland remembers the assembly of students and parents at the end of the summer being consumed in “chills and tears” as a student who never seemed to take the program seriously performed a song with a level of emotional maturity Kirkland never thought possible. And Shen recounts a moment of realization when a student who entered the program with test scores barely above zero skyrocketed her abilities to achieve 70 percent scores. “I’m realizing,” Shen confesses, “She has math skills; she only believes she doesn’t.”
Shen describes his primary role these days as “humor administrator.” He also leads “Discovery,” in which students explore mathematical concepts years beyond what schools expect them to comprehend as a way to pique their interest in higher-level math and keep them engaged in the basics. “I try to reach every child in some way,” Shen says.
Math Corps’ system is not yet perfected, and Shen, Kirkland, and Downs openly recognize the limitations of what they can offer. The grant Math Corps Philly receives from the National Science Foundation covers half the program’s current costs; the rest comes from private donations in order to keep the program free to participating students.
Before they built rapport with local educators and parents, Math Corps Philly also struggled to recruit students for the program. However, by reaching out to local schools, the organization has won over individual educators, who then inform families about the program, collect applications, and even transport students to the camp to help bridge the gap in accessibility.
Shen, Kirkland, and Downs hope to expand the program to another Philadelphia location—when they have the funds, time, and energy. “There should be no question that a program like this should be funded,” Shen laments, “but we have to fight for every dollar.”
In the meantime, Downs confides the trio’s collective hope for the program: that the struggling middle schoolers the instructors once knew will become enthusiastic learners, high school graduates, college mathematics majors—and maybe even future Math Corps administrators themselves. “We’re starting it,” shares Downs, gesturing at her partners beside her, “but this is just the beginning.”Header photo: Courtesy MathCorps