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Philly's ‘Black Girls Love Math’ Empowers K-12 Students to Pursue STEM Careers

PhenomenalMAG Staff  |  Step Into STEM

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At the conclusion of the school day, a crowd of kids leaves Philadelphia's Mann Campus of Mastery Charter School.

In enthusiastic family reunions in the schoolyard after the last bell, they chirp and become reenergized as they move toward the street.

But over to the side, swimming against the tide of homebound peers, a tiny group of about ten students who had left the building turn around and are led back in.

They are a member of Black Girls Love Math, a modest regional initiative whose goal is to abolish racial and gender inequity in mathematics for students in grades K through 12. The organization's main goal is to increase the proportion of Black and Brown females pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) occupations. Recently, the initiative—which began in 2020—accepted its 300th pupil.

Children spend around 90 minutes after school exploring the mathematical arts, honing abilities in anticipation of someday working in the STEM sectors, where Black women, according to some studies, make up just 5% of the workforce.

In her Black Girls Love Math class, 10-year-old Aja-nae Newton, a fourth-grader at the school, declared, "When applying for jobs, math pays well. I write numbers all over my notebook's page, and gosh, it looks so professional. I'm pleased with myself."

Atiyah Harmon, the program's founder and executive director, started her educational journey as a pupil in the Philadelphia Public Schools. She has previously taught math at the People for People Charter School in North Philadelphia and Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia. Wynnefield Heights resident Harmon previously held the position of principal at a charter school in New York City.

“Who is good at arithmetic and who isn't is subject to cultural expectations,” she claimed. "Black girls are also not thought of as having strong math skills. But if you don't see others like you in math professions, you'll be reluctant to pursue it.

“Simply put, there hasn't been any effort to help Black females succeed in arithmetic.”

At the moment, two Camden schools and six Philadelphia schools are running Harmon's program. They are either elementary or middle schools and are all charters. She estimated that there are 150–200 enrolled girls.

Harmon insisted, "They don't have to be strong at math. They only need to be motivated to improve.”

For example, 10-year-old Londyn Serrano, a fourth-grader at Mann, has a confession to make: "I honestly don't like math," she said. "But I do it so that I can be intelligent. I feel smarter when I'm doing math. And it might help me pursue a profession as a vet or a nurse."

According to academics, Black girls have long been subjected to discrimination in the classroom. In a piece written by Natalie King of Georgia State University and published in the journal Cultural Studies of Science Education, they experience a type of "spirit murdering" from instructors and other authority figures who downplay Black girls' aptitude for STEM fields.

"Humanizing places inside schools and the greater community (must be built) for Black females to access STEM with authenticity," King said in his conclusion.

According to Janine Remillard, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, one of Harmon's objectives in developing Black Girls Love Math was to put Black girls in the Philadelphia region "in an environment where they are regarded as intelligent and capable, and not positioned as less than." She said that she had spoken with Harmon before the nonprofit's founding.

Black girls need to be in a setting that supports them as learners and allows them to see other people who look like them, said Remillard.

In the past, it was believed that females of all races are better readers than mathematicians, relayed Gina Cappelletti, assistant principal of instruction at the Mann Campus of Mastery Charter School.

She went on to say, however, that "Math anxiety is especially true for Black girls who are taught what they can and cannot accomplish, and what they can achieve."

Black Girls Love Math aims to "celebrate identity and community" in addition to helping girls become proficient with numbers, explained Cappelletti.

A discussion of a She-ro, like Mary Jackson, the mathematician and aerospace engineer featured in the film "Hidden Figures," is a part of every Black Girls Love Math session.

Nea Coble, a Black Girls Love Math instructor at Mann, added, "We also start with affirmations." We claim to be clever, to give it my all, to be my sister's keeper, a Black girl, and to love math.

In order to build confidence, Coble said she thinks it's essential to foster an atmosphere where kids aren't scared to make errors.

"She explained, "I teach Black girls as a Black lady." And it's my responsibility to mentor and guide them.

Another advantage of Black Girls Love Math is that young girls are frequently taught that what they are learning today matters.

That's a priceless lesson, according to LaShaya Duval-Shepherd, 43, whose daughter Lauren participated in a Black Girls Love Math summer program last year.

Children typically find it difficult to comprehend how their actions today would affect them later in life, according to Duval-Shepherd, who is also the principal of West Philadelphia's Belmont Charter High School. But the program aids in their vision.

For eighth-grader Lauren at McKinley Elementary School, "With Black Girls Love Math, you may overcome your fear of math and gain courage and confidence. One day, I hope to become a doctor."

Jade Davis, 9, a fourth-grader at the Mastery Charter School Mann Campus and a participant in the Black Girls Love Math program, has it as her goal.

She remarked, "A doctor can diagnose people and help them. "For that, math is required. Math is made enjoyable by my teacher.

"It's not at all difficult for me."

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