UCLA in the Community

Giving L.A. youngsters a math and science boost in their own backyard

Bethany Baptist Church teams up with UC and UCLA

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Two students of the Launch Academy
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Two of the smiling faces that make up the Launch Academy. Educators at UCLA's Center X are playing a key role in shaping the curriculum, guiding teachers and supplying instructional materials.

Los Angeles 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 the time it would stay aloft.   

 “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,” she explained.

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

Reed Hutchinson/UCLA
Youngsters at the Launch Academy are improving their math and science skills while working on fun, problem-solving projects.

Aptly named Launch Academy, the program, which began June 20, involves a unique partnership that joins the University of California and Bethany Baptist Church of West Los Angeles, a 58-year-old institution in the Crenshaw district with deep roots in the local African-American community. Educators from UCLA’s Center X are playing a key role in shaping the curriculum, guiding the teachers and supplying instructional materials for the classes.

Center X is an educational research and resource center at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.  

Wearing UCLA T-shirts that are the requisite Launch Academy uniform, participants in the program, ranging in age from 4 to 14, engage in three weeks of math and three weeks of science instruction. After starting the day with an energetic UCLA eight-clap, 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 with educators who are conducting research into how kids learn.

The Office of Diversity and Engagement at the UC Office of the President awarded the California Mathematics Project and the California Science Project at UCLA's Center X with one-time funds to support the Launch Academy.  

“All children should have access to high-quality summer learning opportunities that get them excited about learning, build their academic knowledge and skills, and help them see themselves as capable learners,” said Annamarie Francois, executive director of Center X. “Programs like the Launch Academy and the Horace Mann Summer Institute help make that a reality for low-income and first-generation students in underserved communities of color.”

Reaching students where they live

Like many 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 email list 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 that 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 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 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 ties with the community

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

Part of the effort focuses on building deeper ties in communities of color through educational partnerships like the one with Bethany.

The long-term goal: Change the perceptions of the university in a way that will encourage more high-achieving, underrepresented minority students to pursue a world-class UC education.

Launch Academy is a prime example.

For the youngest students — barely tall enough to reach the classroom whiteboard — it may be years before it’s time to start thinking about, let alone completing, college applications.

But by engaging with students early, the program enables families to see UC as an ally in their kids’ education — not a remote citadel on the hill.

“When kids have an opportunity to learn in a hands-on, engaging way, we start to change who can be successful in math and science,” said Carolee Hurtado, director of the UCLA Mathematics Project. “Kids start to see themselves as good at and enjoying these subjects.”

At a time when many students lose ground academically — a problem educators refer to as “summer slide”  — Launch Academy uses the academic off-season to build stronger and more confident learners.

Teachers are free to engage students in the kinds of open-ended exploration and collaborative problem-solving that spark curiosity and an interest in learning.

During the school year, educators are often under pressure to prepare students for standardized tests —pressures that are particularly strong at underperforming and low-resource schools.

Yet, paradoxically, pressure to elevate scores can result in a narrow, skills-based curriculum that takes much of the joy and discovery out of learning.

“Students rarely get opportunities to present ideas, to engage one another in discussion and to engage in this kind of critical thinking and problem-solving,” said Kyndall Brown, director of the California Mathematics Project, based at UCLA, who helped develop Launch Academy’s math program.

Contrast that with what is happening at Bethany on a typical Wednesday afternoon.

In one classroom, third-graders are using averages to determine whether Life Savers or Styrofoam make for better wheels on balloon-powered vehicles. In another, first-graders are working together to build giant block towers and solve geometric puzzles using cutout shapes.

The result: Even kids who at first grumbled about spending some of their summer in a classroom are now eager to be dropped off in the morning.

“By giving the sense that learning can be fun, we’re really building the foundation for individuals who can be successful in the long run,” said Bethany’s Parker. “If you can create that hunger for learning, you will have a different individual.”

It’s a change that moms like Siba have noticed.  

“It’s amazing what these kids are doing,” she said, as she kissed her kids goodbye at the door. “We might have the next Elon Musk or Bill Gates in there.”

This story is posted in UC Newsroom.

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