Where Oakland Students Can go to Change Their Future in Math
Warriors Community Foundation and Cal State East Bay partner to boost confidence for incoming Oakland High School freshmen
Cal State East Bay senior Tenisha Alston has always been good at math. So good, in fact, that when she was in seventh grade, she was placed in an eighth grade class to the peril of her junior high social life.
“Being in the eighth grade class switched my lunch period around,” Alston said. “So I wasn’t with my friends, and I stopped trying just so I could be moved back to the regular class so no one would find out I was a nerd at heart.”
Today, a quarter away from graduating with a degree in finance and a minor in math, Alston is spending her summer modeling the inspiration she says she lacked as an adolescent for soon-to-be-freshmen at Oakland High School.
Alongside Cal State East Bay professors Julie McNamara (teacher education) and Julia Olkin (math), Alston will mentor 33 teenagers through a program called Summer BRIDGE, sponsored by a $25,000 grant from the Warriors Community Foundation.
“There was no one in my life telling me, ‘Math is cool. This is going take you places, this is going to do something for your future,’” Alston said. “I hope I can be a part of getting rid of the stigma surrounding math for these kids.”
Although her experience is different from how most students get turned off math, professors McNamara and Olkin tapped Alston because she shares their common goal: To shift the needle on the long-standing, abysmal passing rates of Algebra I among California freshmen.
“It’s the prime age when how kids see themselves and how others see them is so important, so they give up when something is hard or creates embarrassment or insecurity,” McNamara said. “It is not uncommon for schools to have a 70 percent fail rate in Algebra I. It becomes this huge deal that’s a gatekeeper and prevents them from going any further. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the kids’ capacity, but their perception about math.”
It’s hard to know how many failing students’ results are linked to their feelings about math, but according to California’s Department of Education, the number of eighth-graders who are already struggling before they enter Algebra I supports the need for intervention. Per the 2015 Assessment of Student Performance and Progress results, 35 percent of Alameda County eighth-graders did not come within range of meeting math proficiency standards, and an additional 22 percent “nearly met” standards but still did not pass. In the Oakland Unified School District, where the professors will be focusing their efforts this summer, the failure rate jumped to 62 percent — much higher than California’s overall 41 percent.
Which is why McNamara and Olkin won’t be using Summer BRIDGE to drill equations. Instead, they’ll focus on exercises aimed at shaping positive student outlooks — before it’s too late.
“Math is not about memorizing facts or speed,” Olkin said. “It’s about creativity and sharing ideas. We’ll be doing group work and focusing on visualizations of mathematics — no lectures. I don’t think the students will have ever experienced math this way before. It’s about helping them go into next year confident; changing their outlook from a fixed mindset of ‘I’m bad at math’ to a growth mindset of ‘I can do this.’”
Beyond the one-week intensive taking place at Oakland High School from July 17-21, the Cal State East Bay professors will be surveying the students on the first and last days of the workshop to assess how they feel toward math and measure shifts in perception. Then, they will be monitoring the students throughout the 2017-18 school year to track progress, passing rates and further shifts in attitude.
In addition to time with Cal State East Bay faculty and students, the teens will also be able to draw long-term career inspiration from the Warriors Community Foundation, which will be sending in an analyst to talk about the business behind the NBA’s ruling champions.
"By showcasing that there are a myriad of ways to work in sports and support an NBA championship — on and off the court — youth can see the connection between their work in the classroom and their career aspirations," said Joanne Pasternack, vice president of community relations and executive director of the Warriors Community Foundation. "Diverse front office team members — like the analyst from the Warriors speaking with the students in the program— use data to constantly evolve our operations. We hope that the Oakland High students will see this path to a career that focuses on academics, and aligns with their passions so they can realize their full potential.”
With college, of course, on that trajectory.
“I’m realizing how much earlier we need to get to these kids before they’re turned off,” Olkin said. “Math opens so many doors, including the opportunity to go to college, and it’s well within reach for all of these students. They just need to believe it.”