Giving West L.A. youngsters a math and science boost

In partnership with a local church, new UC summer program offers free, world-class math and science instruction, right in the community’s backyard.

By Nicole Freeling | 8/15/2016, noon
L.A. sixth grader Alana Matthews thinks that someday she might like to be an astronaut. But on a recent morning, ...

L.A. sixth grader Alana Matthews thinks that someday she might like to be an astronaut. But on a recent morning, she was focused on a more immediate goal: tweaking the designs on a paper rocket to increase how long it could stay in the air.

“You don’t want to make it too heavy or that weighs it down. You want to make sure the tube is loose enough and the fins are properly in place.”

Matthews is one of 100 elementary and middle school students taking part in a new summer program that aims to launch not just cardboard spaceships but academic futures.

Aptly named Launch Academy, the program involves a unique partnership between the University of California and Bethany Baptist Church of West Los Angles, a 58-year- old institution with deep roots in the local African-American community.

Participants in the program – ranging in age from 6 to 13 – engage in three weeks of math and three weeks of science instruction. After starting the day with a UCLA cheer, students break into age-based groups of 15-20 students. Teachers in the program are graduates of training programs offered through the UC-led California Subject Matter Project, which brings together classroom teachers together with educators who are conducting research into how kids learn.

Curriculum guidance and instructional materials are provided by Center X, an educational research and resource center at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Reaching students where they live

Like many other parents, Kadiatou Sibi was struggling to find an affordable and academically-focused summer program for her children when she read about the Launch Academy on Mocha Moms, an area list serve for parents of color.

“This is so hopeful for the kids in our community,” said Sibi, whose three kids, ranging in age from 5 to 10, are part of the academy. “My older son is in fifth grade, and I’ve never seen him so excited about a project at school. He’s like: ‘Mom, I made a flying car. It stayed in the air 3.7 seconds.’”

Top flight educational opportunities like those being offered this summer at Bethany are rare in the community, said Dauwn Parker, a board member at the church who helped organize the program.

“Those parents that really want something academic for their children have always had to travel out of the community,” she said. “This is the first time it’s been right in the neighborhood, in their own backyard.”

Parker first announced the program in an email to the members of the congregation in mid-May. “Once I put it out there, it spread like wildfire.”

Within two weeks, 100 students were signed up for the program, and there were soon half that many more on the waiting list.

“We had parents at orientation who were crying, they were just so grateful to have this for their children,” Parker said.

Building UC ties with the community

The partnership with Bethany is part of Achieve UC, UC President Janet Napolitano’s initiative to boost California enrollment on UC campuses, especially among underrepresented groups, including African-American and Latino students.