Do the Math

A program at Wayne State makes every Detroit Public School student count

Do the MathFor most kids, the only math they want to do over the summer is to count the calendar days they don’t have to go to school.

So the idea of a six-week program called Math Corps Summer Camp is bound to make most students shudder.

But how does that explain the eager learning, not to mention the bright smiles, of the 400 Detroit Public Schools students enrolled in the program at Wayne State University? How does it figure that many of the middle-school students not only go on to take accelerated classes in the program when they reach high school, but mentor the younger kids? How does it make sense that, after the course, many go on to advance their skills in Saturday classes during the school year?

Isn’t math supposed to be tedious for kids, particularly when they’re cooped up in a classroom on a sunny summer day or on a precious Saturday?

Ordinarily, one might say yes. But there’s nothing ordinary about Math Corps. The program is the subject of It All Adds Up, a 30-minute documentary airing on PBS at 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 17.

Birmingham filmmaker Sue Marx directed and produced the TV special with her assistant, Allyson Rockwell. “The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to tell the story,” says Marx, who won an Oscar in 1987 for her documentary Young at Heart. “I wanted to let people know that there’s a positive story coming out of the middle of Detroit, where there isn’t a whole lot of good news.”

In a city notorious for its dismal dropout rates, the numbers for Math Corps are downright encouraging. Ninety percent of participants finish high school, and 80 percent attend college.

It was begun in 1992 by two Wayne State mathematics professors, Steve Kahn and Leonard Boehm, who enlisted the aid of college-aged instructors and high-school teaching assistants (who are paid stipends) to make instruction more manageable by creating teaching teams. Math Corps is funded by Detroit Public Schools and Wayne State University, as well as by various foundations.

Once students are accepted based on the strength of a written essay, they’re expected to work hard.

“The parents are brought to an orientation, and they’re given the ground rules,” Marx says. It’s like basic training. The students must do homework every night. If they’re 30 seconds late, they’re not admitted. If they push another student, they’re sent packing.”

That’s not to suggest that levity has no place in Math Corps. In It All Adds Up, joking is common, and Kahn even takes a cream pie to the face during class.

One theme that runs throughout the film is that Math Corps is only incidentally about math. It also teaches self-worth and courtesy amid a family-like atmosphere.

“It all comes down to respect for each other,” Marx says. “They’re really teaching life skills.”

She hopes Math Corps will spread to other school districts, too.

“The dream, of course, is for it to be like Johnny Appleseed, but it takes a lot of dedication.”

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