Minority Students and Private Schools

I just finished up at the Summer Changes Everything conference in Pittsburgh, held by the National Summer Learning Association.  I was a skeptic coming in but it was a great experience, and I got some great ideas for staff training, fund raising, and family and alumni involvement in SPMPS.  Also some crazy ideas about starting year-round math circles in kids’ schools.  We’ll see what comes of that.

There was a lot of talk at the conference about Paul Tough’s new book and non-cognitive skills in general.  It’s fun watching these fads go through the ecosystem!

On my reading list for the way home was this article in the New York Times about minority students and their struggles at integrating into private schools.  Despite schools’ best efforts, minority students often feel left out.  Even though schools provide much more than full scholarships by paying for books, clothes, and so forth (so that scholarship status is not obvious), it’s not enough.  Backgrounds are different, stereotypes are strong, skin color is different, and cliques persist.

This is a well-known problem, and my program, the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving, seeks to counteract this by preparing students socially and emotionally for high-performing math environments so that they can integrate more easily and feel less different.  (For example, we teach them games like Set and Ultimate Frisbee, and we give them camp-like experiences such as games, hiking, and a trip to Six Flags.)  The Times’ article just goes to show what a big challenge this is, and I can only hope that our efforts will be successful.

Still, I have to admit that I was shocked at what the article describes.  Thinking back on my own high school experience, it makes sense that high schools are so “hands-off” when it comes to socialization.  But in contrast, at SPMPS and at Canada/USA Mathcamp, the counselors meet regularly and discuss what students seem isolated and how to help them integrate.  They look at cliques that might be forming and consider how they might subtly help those cliques open up to more students.  They find lonely students, befriend them, and introduce them to their peers.  If either of the programs saw race-based or scholarship-based cliques forming, we’d certainly take action to help students integrate.

Perhaps this is the difference between a summer program (where social/emotional growth is an explicit priority) and schools (a more laissez-faire environment).  Perhaps the summer programs have an advantage because they have undergraduate counselors who are role models and friends to the students, so it is easy for them to integrate into social groups and help students mix.  Regardless, I wish that schools considered taking a more proactive role in helping students integrate and meet the full diversity of peers available to them.  I wonder what such a school might look like!

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

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