June 6, 2018

Figuring It Out: How the Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics is turning out scholars while closing the achievement gap

Instructor teaching at a blackboard.
Ph.D. candidate Naresh Mahabir helps lead instruction at the center.

Walking into Wayne State University, Darryl Gardner was optimistic and, to his mind, already prepared for his future in a STEM field. Then an aspiring engineering major, Gardner had what he thought was a solid foundation in mathematics.

It wasn’t long before that notion crumbled.

After an underwhelming performance on his college placement exam earned Gardner a spot in remedial math, he quickly realized that he wasn’t nearly as prepared for college-level calculations as he originally believed.

“I thought I had a pretty solid math background coming out of high school,” said Gardner, who graduated from Detroit’s Cody High School in 1999. “I think that’s because I’d always gotten good grades in mathematics. I didn’t realize until I’d taken the math placement exam here that I had so many holes in my math education.”

That same placement test also landed Gardner at the university’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics, a group in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences geared toward shoring up math proficiency among students who have the potential to excel in the field but lack strong fundamentals. There, Gardner went through a series of programs, from remedial to advanced, that not only sharpened his skills but reignited the love for math that had dimmed after he started college.

These days, years after his time at the center, Gardner’s math foundation couldn’t be sturdier.

Now 36, the one-time remedial math student currently is working toward his Ph.D. in applied statistics at Wayne State and is slated to defend his doctoral dissertation later this year. Meanwhile, in the ultimate example of giving back, Gardner also serves as a director at the center, overseeing both the Rising Scholars Program (RSP) and the Emerging Scholars Program (ESP).

Gardner’s turnaround story isn’t the only one the center and its programs have produced, either. Although formally chartered in 2007, the center and the core programs on which it rests have for more than 25 years taken students from throughout metro Detroit — the vast majority of them students of color from low-performing school districts — and forged them into outstanding math scholars.

While the center has multiple components, its best-known facet is Math Corps, the middle and high school level program that has earned national recognition for its success in boosting math skills among Detroit Public Schools Community District students. Lesser known but just as critical are the Pre-Emerging Scholars Program (PREP), ESP and RSP, all three of which offer support to students at Wayne State.

Steven Kahn, founder and director of the center, said the programs have seen dramatic results over the past 25 years.

“ESP essentially has closed the achievement gap,” said Kahn. “So the difference between all students and minority students is incredibly small compared to what it usually is.”

The center boasts impressive results. In ESP honors pre-calculus and calculus courses, the minority pass rate is 82 percent. Overall, the pass rate for all ESP students is 89 percent.

RSP, meanwhile, is offered to Wayne State students who need to develop basic college-level mathematical skills. A combination lecture and workshop, the format provides students with individual tutoring, study groups and the same strong support system as ESP.

Darryl Gardner plays guitar.
Darryl Gardner (c) strums a guitar for students.

Gardner said RSP has had such an impact on students that the center considers it more of a retention program than a math program, adding that it teaches students how to study and plan — skills they may not have developed before entering college. Many students transition to ESP upon completion of RSP.

Kahn said the center has always been about closing achievement gaps, closing racial disparities, providing students with opportunities to succeed and helping them realize dreams they may not have otherwise been able to achieve.

“What I think it does more than anything is it says that first and foremost, before any mathematics, that we are going to care about you, and we are going to believe in you, and our job is to get you to believe in yourself,” said Kahn. “And once that happens, then with very hard work and a commitment to excellence, great achievements are possible and happen.”

Ultimately, Kahn said, the center is about creating programming in which any student can thrive, regardless of background or other personal factors.

“This is a fight that’s been going on for decades,” said Kahn. “I would want to say that the center is not just a mathematics program. Far from it. It’s a social justice. I hope that going forward, we could finally see a day where kids of Detroit, through the good work of Wayne State and its resources, can find those opportunities all kids deserve.”

Kahn and Gardner both credit the dramatic success of the math center to the natural pipeline that it creates. Math Corps creates opportunities for peer mentors once students reach college. Many former Math Corps students not only become peer mentors for Math Corps but often enroll in RSP and ESP. According to Kahn, most of the center’s staff, like Gardner, are RSP or ESP alumni, and sometimes both. The center also has dedicated advisors and counselors to support students through both academic and nonacademic struggles.

Recalling his own early academic hardships, Gardner also hailed PREP, a developmental program offered at the remedial level.

“I was fortunate to be placed into the PREP program because they strengthened my foundation,” said Gardner. “I developed such an affinity for mathematics that I actually earned my bachelor’s degree in mathematics.”

That degree led Gardner to earn a master’s in education from Wayne State. Pursuing his Ph.D. was the next logical step, he said.

Once he’s earned his doctorate, Gardner plans to use his expertise to evaluate solutions in social disparities among minorities. He is especially interested in closing education gaps.

“It’s my passion for mathematics,” Gardner said. “I’ve always enjoyed using it in a more real-world context. There’s a lot of research out there, and a lot of data out there, so I really wanted to find ways to evaluate that and develop solutions for those disparities that we see.”

Of course, in their search for at least some solutions, Gardner, Kahn and those at the Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics need look no further than in the mirror.