'Math nerds' come in all stripes. Our plan helps low-income students get what they need to succeed

We have come to know many extraordinarily bright and talented students from low-income families who were told, implicitly or explicitly, that they wouldn’t be able to succeed at advanced academic work. They were advised to steer clear of the toughest courses in school, especially math and science. They were told not to go to the most competitive colleges. Educators inadvertently blocked them from academically challenging work.

Stereotypes affect youth in both subtle and overt ways. Combined with systemic gaps in access, we’re left with a tragic waste of talent and a grave injustice that must no longer be tolerated. Our organizations are working to change things in a number of ways, including through a program that is coming to Los Angeles to help outstanding low-income students master advanced mathematics.

The program is called Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM) and it has been operating successfully in New York City since 2011.

A new $1 million grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation will fund the expansion of the program to Los Angeles next year, giving low-income “math nerds” the enrichment they need to shine, starting with a five-week summer program for students following 6th grade. This enrichment program, modeled on what affluent parents provide to their children, will expand to serve students following 7th grade in the summer of 2019. It is expected to serve at least 140 Los Angeles students each summer by 2020.

With the help of nearly $1.3 million in earlier grants from the Cooke Foundation, BEAM has provided hundreds of middle school students in New York City with intensive summer math enrichment programs, and gone on to provide year-round mentoring and weekly math instruction to the students in high school.

BEAM gives its students the same aspirations and opportunities as more affluent students, overcoming the low expectations and unfair obstacles that many encounter. Test results show BEAM does an excellent job preparing students to be math and business majors in college.

BEAM’s expansion to Los Angeles is the first step in a planned national expansion of the program to help increase the number of low-income students who graduate from college and pursue careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The number of jobs in these fields will continue to grow, and we need to prepare growing numbers of young people from all income groups to fill them.

Our nation has many more students like those BEAM serves who are capable of great achievements if only given the necessary enrichment and support. To allow each of these students to achieve as much as they can, we need to abandon old stereotypes that those from low-income families are somehow unable to perform at a high level. We need to encourage students to challenge themselves to their highest levels.

These accumulated effects are one reason that low-income students don’t get admitted to elite colleges in numbers that match their abilities. As a study by the Cooke Foundation last year found, only 3 percent of students enrolled at the most selective colleges are from poorest 25 percent of families, while 72 percent come from the richest 25 percent. When the rich outnumber the poor by 24-to-1, we can no longer say colleges are engines of social mobility.

Most importantly, the Cooke Foundation study found that when they are admitted by elite colleges, low-income students perform absolutely on par with their wealthier classmates. The foundation, which gives the nation’s largest scholarships to exceptionally high-achieving low-and moderate-income students, finds thousands of qualifying students every year. 

There are proven solutions that can help outstanding low-income students to excel. Such students can be spotted more easily if everyone in a grade is given assessment exams starting in elementary school to determine their ability to handle advanced instruction, and if there remain pathways to access advanced work throughout their time in school.

Colleges themselves can do a lot more to identify low-income students capable of high-level work, attract them to apply and provide needed financial aid. Importantly, low-income students who show potential in math and science should get the same encouragement, advice, and enrichment as their more affluent peers.

We need to look at all students as individuals and fully develop each of their talents. Students who are both smart and from low-income families are out there. We just need to be smarter about finding, encouraging, and supporting them.

Daniel Zaharopol is executive director of The Art of Problem Solving Initiative, which runs Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics.

Harold O. Levy, is executive director of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships to exceptionally high-achieving students who have financial need, was New York City schools chancellor in 2000-02.