Contact: Bob Nelson
(212) 854-6580

For immediate release
August 4, 1999

City College, Columbia Mentors Build Enthusiasm For Math At Harlem High School, Despite Heat

Irene Gee, summer school principal at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem, was pleased to hear the anecdote: A student had been caught working on math problems while on a field trip to Lincoln Center.

"She said she couldn't wait to get home to do the math, so she was doing it on the bus," said Ms. Gee, with some amazement. "The kids are really getting motivated. It's very encouraging."

In spite of oppressive temperatures at uncooled Harlem schools this summer, engineering students from City College of New York and Columbia University helped to instill unprecedented enthusiasm for fractions, decimals and algebra problem-solving in math-challenged high schoolers.

Though the students are entering the ninth grade, it's not too soon to start grooming them for college, said Gil Lopez, project director for the program, called the Harlem School/College Network.

"Study after study shows that students who do not master algebra in the ninth grade do not take or complete the advanced math and science courses necessary for engineering college consideration," Mr. Lopez said. "This is the appropriate time for intervention. If these students can gain some confidence about their math abilities prior to high school enrollment, they have a chance of making great academic strides."

Pending receipt of external funding, the network will expand this fall to a three-year development effort, with some 1,800 students and 40 teachers expected to participate. In addition to Randolph High, the project will include Frederick Douglass Academy, the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics and Intermediate Schools 43, 195 and 275 in Community School District Number 5 in Harlem. After the three-year project ends, the network is to be expanded to include more Harlem schools. Administrators at the two colleges hope to see the model of engineering students coaching high schoolers in math replicated in inner cities across the nation.

"Too often, mentor programs focus on the top students, when it's precisely the students at the bottom who need the attention," said Jack McGourty, associate dean in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia. "We think this model can make a difference."

Over the summer, in a pilot run of the program, 13 student engineers from the two colleges helped about 200 students who this fall will enter Randolph High, located on the City College campus at West 135th St. in Manhattan. The students took placement tests at the start of the six-week term, which ran July 1 to Aug. 11, and were divided into four groups, the lowest two of which received the individual attention provided by the teaching assistants. The pilot program was funded by the New York City Board of Education, the Urban Systemic Initiative and the Gateway Coalition, a consortium of seven East Coast engineering colleges.

The student engineers worked under the supervision of regular summer-school teachers, who broke classes up into teams of two to five students, each assigned to a teaching assistant. On most days, there was a quiz, and until the entire class mastered a topic, the entire class continued working to understand it.

"The students have math problems in front of them all the time, and their attention to the subject has to be undivided," said Marvin Robinson, a math teacher at Randolph High who worked with the most-challenged students. "They need the kind of discipline this small group relationship provides."

Randolph High enrolls about half of its incoming first-years in the summer program. Students attend three 97-minute classes, in math, science and in special projects to help them understand high school work. The high school, which at one time housed the city's performing arts high school, now enjoys a special relationship with City College, which gives the high school students access to labs and libraries and allows seniors to take tuition-free college courses. In Mr. Robinson's class one July morning, four groups of students wrestled with homework problems, and the teacher moved among them, conferring with the four mentors. On this day, clouds moderated the heat.

"I think the students are really coming around, really beginning to look forward to math," said David Babb, a City College engineering student. "But the kids who are slower at comprehending the new lessons get frustrated sometimes and lose motivation. There are all kinds of human emotions we have to take into account."

Elizabeth Viriya, a biomedical engineering major at Columbia, agreed. "I found my students diligent, ready to work and ready to conquer the problems that used to be intimidating. In terms of interest level, I have never seen a more dramatic improvement."

The Harlem network builds on the experience of the Comprehensive Model School Project, a collaboration among the Board of Education, Cooper Union and Columbia from 1991 to 1995 to prepare seventh- and eighth-graders for high school. Eighth-graders in the program achieved an average 90 percent pass rate on the Regents' Algebra Examination administered in June 1995, the second-highest rank of 28 Manhattan schools. Since 1995, the project has evolved into the CMSP High School on the Lower East Side.

For more information, interested parties may contact Jack McGourty, Associate Dean, Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University, (212) 854-4814 or

This document is available at Working press may receive science and technology press releases via e-mail by sending a message to