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Far too often, talented math students at schools in low-income communities barely have access to grade-level work, let alone advanced curricula. Common obstacles include high teacher turnover, insufficient resources and overcrowded classes. Math teachers must ensure that diverse groups of learners acquire a basic understanding of the material, and they may not have the capacity to meet the needs of their most accelerated students.
Rather than letting these high-aptitude students flounder, we must find ways to nurture their talent. Students from higher-income high schools graduate from college with majors in science, technology, engineering and math at twice the rate (16 percent) of those from low-income high schools (8 percent).
Often, a lack of mathematical preparation and socal-emotional challenges prevent students from completing STEM majors, despite their declared interests in such fields. But the problem begins long before college.
To envision themselves as future computer scientists, engineers, programmers or mathematicians, talented students in low-income communities need exposure, opportunities and support from a young age.
In short, they need access to more rigorous instruction and the types of enrichment commonly available to their more affluent peers. Here are six strategies that teachers, coaches and administrators can use to try to encourage students to go beyond what their schools offer.
First, involve parents: One of the most important steps that teachers can take is to get parental buy-in. Parents want to see their children do well, but often are not plugged into the enrichment opportunities that are common in higher-income communities. If educators share with parents information about summer programs, community-based organizations or online resources, parents may be willing to take the next step to get their children involved. One resource to explore is the American Mathematical Society, which curates a list of STEM programs across many grade levels. While some programs do cost money, others offer substantial or even full financial aid based on need.
Second, partner with outside organizations: Schools can augment what they’re able to offer on their own by partnering with outside organizations. Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), where I am executive director of programs in Los Angeles, works with schools in low-income communities in Los Angeles and New York City to provide high-aptitude students with rigorous math enrichment through summer and school-year programs.
Third, connect with local universities: Local universities often provide academic enrichment programs within their communities, but some of these programs may fly under the radar, like math circles and MESA. In addition, many community colleges offer dual-enrollment programs that allow students to take classes for college credit while they’re still in high school. Educators can reach out to local universities to explore what’s available and connect students with these types of programs.
Fourth, leverage online programs: A variety of free online programs offer challenging academic work as well, such as Alcumus on the “Art of Problem Solving” website. Designed for students seeking deeper math challenges, this program explores wide-ranging topics and problems that promote critical thinking. It is an excellent supplement to the math taught in school and gives accelerated students ample opportunity to grapple with more challenging material.
Fifth, build a list of resources: Compiling a list of resources is a time-intensive project initially, but it’s well worth the effort. By spending some time each year updating resources and adding new ones, teachers can create a long-lasting collection that will benefit students and families for years to come.
Finally, look beneath the surface: Some students may not readily reveal their math aptitude in class, so it may take patience and creativity to discover it. Their grades may seem to reflect a lack of interest, but teachers shouldn’t overlook the possibility that their performance instead reveals how bored they are with the math taught in class. Often these students don’t know how to advocate for themselves, or they don’t have the confidence to do so. Engaging them with math puzzles or non-traditional problems may reveal that they have mathematical talent that ought to be nurtured.
Differentiated instruction includes making space for the strongest students and ensuring that they are adequately challenged to further their thinking. Sometimes that space is beyond the classroom. However, talented students from underserved communities often lack access to external resources and fall behind their more affluent peers.
This point becomes more salient when we think about how we are preparing our underserved youth to develop the skills and capacities they’ll need for the jobs of the future. Available jobs in STEM are expected to increase by 13 percent, compared to 9 percent for non-STEM jobs, by 2027. Recognizing the talents of high-potential students and helping create pathways to the educational enrichment they need to prepare for futures in STEM are shared responsibilities that can make all the difference in helping influence the course of students’ educations and, ultimately, their life pursuits.
This story about nurturing high-aptitude math students in under-resourced schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Jacob Castaneda is executive director of programs in Los Angeles for Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a nonprofit dedicated to creating pathways for underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists. Prior to joining BEAM, Castaneda taught high school math in South Central Los Angeles and enrichment math in Compton, California.