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114th and Success

By Margaret Loftus

It was during last summer's annual SECME Summer Institute in Nashville that Karen Weaver-Gant, a SECME master teacher, realized the full extent of SECME Executive Director Yvonne Freeman's devotion to young people. One of the students had fallen ill and had to be hospitalized. Instead of carrying on with her frenzied schedule, Freeman headed straight to the hospital to be with the girl. “It would have been easy and understandable to send someone else to attend to her needs, but Freeman wanted to be there,” Weaver-Gant says. “It is the small things like that that make you feel that SECME is not just an organization....it is family.”

Indeed, for the past four years, Freeman has been devoted to spreading the SECME word: Historically underrepresented and underserved students can excel at science, math, engineering, and technology. “It's more spiritual than anything,” she says. “Education is a ministry.”

SECME, which stands for the Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering but is now known just by the acronym, was founded in 1975 by engineering deans at seven Southeastern universities to tap new talent, namely minorities and women, to bolster engineering enrollments by forming school-university partnerships. Today, one of the premiere pre-college programs in the nation, the alliance links 44 engineering universities, 117 school systems, and more than 900 K-12 schools in 18 states with 70 corporate and government investors to promote careers in math, science, engineering, and technology among underserved K-12 students.

Born in Waterbury, Conn., Freeman's work ethic began early on. When she was 9, she got her first job, turning the lights off at the Kingsbury Synagogue across the street from her house. “The rabbi paid me for my work with nougats and a nickel,” she remembers. “It felt good to be needed and have responsibility.” After her parents divorced a few years later, she moved to a California public housing development with her mother and brother. Freeman credits her mother—who took her to museums, libraries, church, as well as ballet, tap, and piano lessons—with instilling in her the value of education. “Outside of my bedroom was a street sign that read 114th and Success and I always said to myself ‘One day I will write a story of my life and the book will be entitled, 114th and Success.'” Freeman graduated from high school in a special program affiliated with the University of Southern California and got her undergraduate degree from Fisk University. “I have been inspired by hardship and challenge. My mission is to share this story with kids who think their life circumstances are hopeless.”

Freeman went on to receive a Ph.D. in education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her SECME post is the culmination of a rich career in education and equal opportunity, including a stint as education officer in the Africa Bureau of the State Department and the first female provost of Clark Atlanta University. She saw the SECME opportunity as a natural progression of her passion for education that began as a fifth and sixth grade teacher in Los Angeles.

While SECME has seen great success, its work is far from over. Fewer than 21 percent of graduates from engineering schools are women and only 5.4 percent are black, 5.5 percent Hispanic. “There is this preoccupation to recruit foreign individuals and bypass the communities where we are growing human capital,” explains Freeman, who also served as NASA's associate administrator in charge of equal opportunity and minority education programs and the highest ranking African-American female at the agency. “We are foreclosing opportunities for those who are already here who ultimately should be supporting our tax base. Diversity really has the potential to strengthen our national economy.”

In order to achieve such diversity, math and science teachers in grades K-12 must be top-notch, Freeman maintains. “The biggest danger is the underpreparation of teachers in math and science.” In fact, 28 percent of math teachers and nearly 1 in 5 science teachers aren't certified in their field. Freeman feels strongly that society needs to look at new ways to fund education preparation for teachers—that's where the government and corporate sponsors come in. “We need to create an investment strategy that would involve public and private sectors to invest in the training of our teachers,” says Freeman, who is also a graduate of the Executive Management in Business Administration program at UCLA. “If we don't have quality teachers, we aren't going to have quality physicians, scientists, and engineers.”

Certainly, most of the group's work is focused on motivating and strengthening teachers' skills through workshops, training sessions, and an intensive two-week Summer Institute held at a different SECME university each year. When Bill White started his first year of teaching in the Mobile, Ala., school system in 1994, the principal told him he would be “the SECME guy.” Unsure as to what that entailed exactly, he started going to SECME workshops and soon reveled in a new approach to teaching. “It was all about hands-on and can-do,” he says. “It literally changed the way I taught.” He went from standing in front of his fifth graders to being a more cooperative “let's see if we can do this” teacher. He started a SECME “team” that participated—and won—science and math competitions like the Brain Bowl and Olympiad. SECME fever quickly spread. “My children would stay after school one, two, and even three hours to work on the Brain Bowl and their banana cars. I started hearing every day when I came to school, ‘Can I be in SECME? Is there a meeting today? Can I stay after school and work on my project?' I was floored to say the least.” White says his students went from filling a desk to working way beyond what they thought they could do. “My expectations were so high and they fought tooth and nail to meet them.”

Weaver-Gant, the 2002 SECME teacher of the year, became involved with SECME more than seven years ago when she launched a program at Carol City Elementary School in Miami, where she teaches sixth grade science. “Hands-on based activities capture the attention and imaginations of my students. SECME activities accommodate the distinctive learning styles displayed by children,” she says. Instead of listening to lectures, “Students grasp curriculum objectives through the process of discovery. Many times students are having such fun that they do not realize how many new skills and objectives they have mastered.”

In 2000, Weaver-Gant attended the Summer Institute—held that year at Georgia Tech, SECME's headquarters—where “master teachers” train participants in teaching strategies and methods for integrating educational technology into the classroom. “I received so many great ideas that I could not possibly keep them to myself,” she recalls. Upon her return, she recruited 26 teachers from her school to participate in SECME activities.

Collegebound

Of course, the big pay-off is the student results. One of SECME's greatest success stories is that of Paul D. West Middle School in Atlanta. In the early 80s, it was the lowest-performing public school in Fulton County, Ga. Through the SECME program instituted by principal Brandon Southern Jr., 38 minority students at the inner city school went on to careers in science, technology, or mathematics. Twenty-three of those students became engineers, graduating from highly selective colleges such as Georgia Tech, MIT, Yale, and Duke. An annual survey shows 85 to 90 percent of SECME high school graduates go on to college. And on SATs, African-American SECME students score 221 points higher than the African-American average of 865. Hispanic SECME kids score 150 points higher than the average of 927.

Freeman has instituted several new initiatives under her watch. Mathletics is an interactive summer camp program designed to teach math to students through sports. For example, kids are shown that if they want to score in basketball, they need to visually measure the distance they need to throw. Says Freeman, “It's a sneaky approach to teaching math, but we need to use everything we can.” Part of that strategy, too, is to involve parents. Freeman has spearheaded a scientific literacy campaign for parents called EP squared. Through workshops in which they complete hands-on projects, parents gain a new appreciation of technology.

Freeman's most ambitious project yet may be the Early College Program, which incorporates college-level classes into high school. SECME is developing eight early-college high schools by partnering school districts with member universities. Generally, students begin the program in 7th grade and complete two years of college while they are still in high school. “It's for kids who have the capacity for academic rigor but have not been inspired,” Freeman says. Each program will have a different focus. For example, at the Jacksonville, Fla., marine engineering early-college high school program started last fall, kids begin taking community college courses in the 9th grade. The expectation is that these students will continue their education at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

To support these schools, Freeman has succeeded in getting funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with Carnegie Corp., the Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Gates Foundation gave SECME $5 million to create the early-college high schools, and the group has received about $1.8 million from Exxon since 1999. She says she wants to continue to create an educational franchise with a menu of options for partners to invest in. “The strength of what we do is our alliances,” Freeman says. “No great thing is ever accomplished by one.”

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in St. Michaels, Md.

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