Kids Are Excited By Project Excite

Northwestern Partnership Helps Minority Students Excel In Science And Math
By Cara Moultrup

photo by Méphie NgoiIn the Center for Talent Development (CTD) class it was multiplication with double and triple digits. This called for scratch paper. But eventually the right answer was found and the understanding flashed like a tiny flashlight bulb. Or maybe it was a tiny flashlight bulb?

Five fourth-graders, four girls and one boy, are sitting along a desk made for college lectures, allowing them some wriggle room on the hard plastic seats. They are creating circuit puzzles to quiz classmates on math problems and science vocabulary. If the wires touch a question and its answer, the circuit will be completed by a hidden strip of aluminum foil causing the lightbulb to illuminate.

The kids love the circuit puzzles, especially when they create trick questions and fool their friends. "Our main purpose was just to get kids excited about math and science," says Paula Olzewski-Kubilius, CTD director, about Project Excite. It seems they have succeeded.

Project Excite was founded three years ago to increase the number of minority students in upper-level math and science classes at Evanston Township High School. It is a collaboration among Evanston/Skokie School District 65, Evanston Township District 202 and Northwestern University. Together, they put together a CTD class of third graders every year, pulled from five District 65 elementary schools, who receive extra enrichment and encouragement until high school.

"Look at this page," the teacher is saying. "If girls' shorts cost $6.59 and you have $35, how many can you buy?" The kids are working on sale items and percent discounts. The teacher, Megan Pomering, teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at Nichols middle school during the week and Project Excite kids on Saturdays. This term the fourth-graders focus on science, including properties of magnets, circuits and fuses. On this last Saturday, though, they're reviewing math.

"$5.25! $5.25!" Samuel is shouting. "No, $6.25!" Naomi says. Ashley goes to the board to do the subtraction. She writes 5.25 and sits down. "Where's the dollar sign?" Pomering asks, a stickler for details.

Fourth and fifth graders in the program meet every Saturday. This year 16 out of 19 fourth graders have returned (three moved out of the district). Fifth grade students can take any class offered by CTD, but the fourth graders are kept together to bond as a group.

Ashley and Samuel are discussing quietly in the corner. "Is the math problem easy?" Pomering asks, and Naomi shrugs noncommittally, but she works fast. "To be successful in our program, surrounded by other gifted students, means a lot," Olzewski-Kubilius says.

Students are nominated for Excite by their teachers at the end of second grade. At the beginning of third grade, students take a nonverbal skills test (which won't handicap kids for whom English is not a first language), and program coordinators look at that score as well as other data. They consider teachers' input on work habits and attitude, seeking to identify students who could work above grade level and have an interest and curiosity about math and science. "We want children who not only have ability, but are committed to working hard," Olszewski-Kubilius says.

Excite Program coordinators Méphie and Daphné Ngoi say they are flexible in their approach to the program. "We won't know about the success of the program until the kids reach high school. We keep discovering new things to adjust," Méphie says. Last summer, participants who needed reading review got it. Students for whom English is not their first language may need additional support until their English reaches the level at which they are capable of working in other subjects.

This spring the fifth graders will have six additional math review sessions to prepare them for the district's math placement exam to place accelerated students in pre-algebra. Since the goal of the program is to get more minorities on the "fast track," the students will be studying hard for this test. "D65 is ahead of the game in getting sixth graders in pre-algebra," Olzewski-Kubilius says. D65 then pays to bus eighth graders in the accelerated track to geometry at the high school.

Parents in the program have become tuned in to these opportunities for getting ahead. "They want a program that's going to move their kids forward," Olzewski-Kubilius says. Parents are not interested in a program that will just raise self-esteem without teaching, she says. Some parents, while initially wary, are now great supporters of the program and interested in signing their other children up for CTD classes.

"We try to really listen to our parents," Olzewski-Kubilius says. The program works to build strong connections to families. It has hired a home coordinator and an interpreter for parents, and keeps them updated with newsletters and e-mail. One perk for families is a new computer with an e-mail account that is given to fourth-graders after they have demonstrated consistent attendance and achievement.

Toward the end of the Saturday morning class, Pomering knows she is about to lose the students after almost three hours of work. She has saved her big guns for last. She pulls out a bag of candy and tells kids to clear their desks. This time each math problem — from long division to cubic volume to basic algebra — is a race for candy and the glory of first place.

But until that last hour, the students seem to have had no problem with motivation—even doing math on a Saturday morning. At the end of this class, they are done until the fall. Will they be back next year? Naomi says, "I have to stay here until ninth grade!" But she doesn't seem worried. Jessica says she'll be back. She likes the classes "because they're educational and you have fun at the same time!"

Daphné agrees that having fun motivates students. Anything you're good at, she adds, you usually like. Méphie and Daphné both comment on the increase in Excite students' confidence. The kids may not even be aware of how good they are at math initially. While in school they may have been quiet, in Excite classes they learn they don't have to be afraid of being wrong.

And they don't have to be afraid of other kids' negative views of school. "Hopefully, we are getting them to understand that education is the key [to success in life]," Daphné says. "You should not be stigmatized for wanting to learn," Méphie adds. The district has clustered the Excite kids in the same class in school and partnered them with high school minority mentors to give them the message "This is the path, I got here," says Daphné

The program is a tremendous opportunity, the coordinators stress. Méphie visited one class working on fuses and electrical currents. "The kids explained it —I couldn't believe it," he says. Then he laughs as he tells of a parent who came in asking, "What have you done to my son?" After the electric circuits lab, the kid wanted to rewire the whole house!

"They're finding that success is a good feeling," Méphie says. "I think it could be addicting!" Daphné adds. It's that magic lightbulb feeling.

Cara Moutrup is a senior in the Medill School of Journalism.

By Cara Moultrup