Thirteen-year-old Seth Greene is so good at math that he’s taking a second-year high school class in eighth grade.
So it seems reasonable when he says he hopes to study engineering at Stanford University. But as soon as he names the prestigious California school, he starts backpedaling.
“That’s pushing it,” Seth says softly. “It’s far away and it’s hard. It’s a long way from home.”
That’s the mindset Justin Hicks fights every day, as he works with talented students from rural poverty in four Watauga County schools. He’s leading the newest branch of YES, or Young Eisner Scholars, a program created by a California entertainment lawyer 18 years ago to help gifted students in urban schools reach their Ivy League potential.
Plenty of groups labor to help impoverished children master basic skills and earn high school diplomas. Founder Eric Eisner, a lawyer and film production executive, decided to target the high-potential students who could shoot for the stars, lifting themselves out of poverty and tapping America’s full promise.
To do that, he decided, they need the same advantages that bright kids from wealthy families get, such as top-notch schools, tutoring and high-quality summer programs.
“In order for the system to work, for the smart kid to make it up the ladder, he needs an advocate. And not just an ordinary advocate; a high-powered guy with lots of connections who can get you in and watch over you,” author and longtime YES supporter Malcolm Gladwell said in a podcast.
Justin Hicks of YES Appalachia uses red Solo cups to help Brelyn Sturgill, left, and Aubry Spaulding work out a “math story” about saline solution.
Providing those advantages isn’t cheap. YES spends about $40,000 per student, following them from sixth grade through college graduation and career placement. And the group uses its connections to provide each student with an average of $300,000 in scholarships for enrichment programs and college.
YES graduates from Los Angeles, where the effort began 18 years ago, have earned degrees from Harvard, Yale and other universities and started careers in law, medicine, business, engineering and technology.
Is rural poverty different?
After its start in Los Angeles, YES expanded to New York and Chicago. In all three cities, the program works mostly with black and Hispanic students living in dire circumstances and dangerous neighborhoods. The goal is often to get them out of unstable, dysfunctional public schools and into private prep schools.
It’s different in Watauga County, where families who have lived in the mountains for generations are neighbors to affluent resort communities and Appalachian State University.
Hicks, who grew up in Mount Olive and graduated from Appalachian State, interned with YES and pitched the idea of expanding to a mostly white rural area, where access to top academic programs can also be limited. The university was already working with Watauga County schools, so YES joined the partnership.
Here, says Hicks, public schools are good. And families are often comfortable – too comfortable – with the way things are.
“These kids can go on cruise control and they’ll be fine,” Hicks says of the high-fliers who are chosen for YES. His mission is to persuade them that cruising won’t cut it if they want to compete with students around the world.
In that regard, urban and rural students of poverty face similar challenges. Being a star student, especially if it comes easily, can create the impression that bright kids are barreling toward success. But soon enough they meet equally smart students with a wealth of life experiences and a team of tutors, coaches and connections to help them get ahead.
“We try to be that whole team of private coaches,” Hicks says. And lesson No. 1 is: “Work your butt off.”
Watauga County has eight elementary schools that serve grades K-8, all of which feed into one high school. That means each class is small – Mabel Elementary, for example, has fewer than 20 eighth-graders – so students don’t have as many advanced classes as they might in a larger school.
Why math matters
Students are chosen for YES in sixth grade, based on test scores, teacher recommendations and student interviews. They start the summer before seventh grade with a two-week program where they learn advanced math, logic puzzles, computer coding, philosophy and journalism.
The common thread, according to YES leaders, is those disciplines all teach language to make sense of the world. At YES, advanced math is seen as a path to college success, but it isn’t taught in terms of calculating the right answer to pass a test. Most of these students can do that easily already.
Instead, they’re pushed to write math “sentences” that tell a story. On a recent afternoon, Hicks asked two seventh-graders at Mabel Elementary to tackle a challenge from the GRE, an exam taken by grad-school applicants. He used red Solo cops to set it up: If you have one cup filled with 10 percent saline solution and another filled with 15 percent saline solution, what mix will you need to create 200 milliliters of 12 percent solution?
They wrote formulas on a whiteboard, ran numbers through their calculators and concluded you’d need 120 milliliters of 10 percent solution and 80 of 15 percent solution. Aubry Spaulding, 13, and Brelyn Sturgill, 12, spent their lunch break doing math, but they say this work is more fun than regular classes.
“It’s like the sun rises, slowly. Math is a sunrise,” Aubry said. “We teach ourselves.”
“He pushes us to our limits,” Brelyn added.
Stretching their minds
YES works with 40 seventh- and eighth-graders in Watauga County. The plan is to stick with them as they move into high school and college, helping with applications and financial aid. But for now, while they’re in middle school, Hicks pushes them to think big and embrace challenge.
To report this series, The News & Observer acquired seven years of student-level data for the state's 115 school districts and charter schools from the state Department of Public Instruction. Each year, it includes the end-of-grade scores for nearly 700,000 North Carolina elementary and middle-school students and similar data for roughly 455,000 high school students.
This is the same data used by DPI to produce its annual report cards - snapshots about the performance of schools. Our analysis went deeper to compare the experiences of high-scoring students from low-income households with those of their higher-income classmates.
We don't know who the students are. But unique ID numbers allowed us to track the students from year to year and to follow how schools assign those students from class to class.
We found racial disparities among high-scoring students: Among more affluent students, Asians are more likely to be placed in rigorous classes, while black and Hispanic students are less likely. Whites are placed at a rate equal to the state average.
We focused on low-income students, measured by those who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Year in and year out, a smaller proportion of low-income third graders who score at the highest level on end-of-grade tests get on the track of advanced courses compared to their more affluent classmates. And more of these students slip through the cracks as the years go by.
We focused on math for several reasons: it is sequential, so students who fall behind find it difficult to catch up; measuring math skills is less subjective than areas such as reading and social sciences; and as a student progresses, math scores help determine enrollment in high school classes such as chemistry, biology and physics.
These end-of-grade tests measure achievement and start in the third grade, when students take their first state reading and math exams. Many school districts use other measures, such as aptitude tests and teacher screenings, to decide admission to gifted programs. Some also consider the end-of-grade scores.
The end-of-grade tests aren't a perfect measure, but they're important enough that North Carolina lawmakers and education officials have long used them to shape public policy and spending decisions. We were not able to obtain the results of aptitude tests.
North Carolina's education system has many independent pieces, and often it's not clear just who's in charge.
The General Assembly allocates the money for local schools and writes education law. The State Board of Education sets policy. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction implements these laws and policies. And each of the state's 115 school districts has an elected board, which hires a superintendent to run the schools.
In fact, the state Board of Education and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction are squaring off in court to determine just who is in control of the state's education department. This action comes after legislators passed a new law giving more hiring clout to new Superintendent Mark Johnson.
When it comes to programs to push and support gifted students, state law lets local school boards set policy on how to choose children for the programs.
The General Assembly gives each district a gifted supplement tied to the district's enrollment. Many districts supplement that money with local contributions.
The North Carolina Association for the Gifted and Talented, www.ncagt.org or 910-326-8463, offers information about services for gifted students. The national conference will be in Charlotte in November and will include discussion of how to better serve low-income and other underrepresented students.
The Public School Forum of North Carolina, www.ncforum.org or 919-781-6833, monitors statewide issues and recently released a report on expanding opportunities for low-income and minority students.
Young Eisner Scholars, or YES, provides intensive support for high-potential students of poverty, from middle school through college graduation. The group is active in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Watauga County, N.C. www.yesscholars.org or in Watauga County, Jhicks@yesscholars.org.
The Wake Ed Partnership supports Wake County teachers with innovation grants, training in science and math instruction and tutors for young students struggling to learn to read. http://www.wakeed.org or 919-821-7609
Gen-One Charlotte is a nonprofit created by two CMS teachers to provide college-prep support for high-scoring students from low-income homes. It is active only at Eastway Middle School but hopes to serve as a pilot for expansion. www.genonecharlotte.org, firstname.lastname@example.org or 980-263-9043.
The Daniel Center for Math and Science is a Raleigh nonprofit center that provides summer programs and after-school tutoring for low-income elementary and middle school students. www.danielcenter.org, email@example.com or 919-828-6443.
Ann Doss Helms has been The Charlotte Observer's education reporter since 2002. She won first place in the North Carolina Press Association's education reporting category in 2017, 2016, 2014 and 2013. In 2015, she won the Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries. She worked for the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph & News before coming to the Observer in 1987.
Joseph Neff, who joined The News & Observer in 1992, has written extensively about criminal justice and health care. He was part of a team whose reporting on nonprofit hospitals won the ASNE, Loeb, Sigma Delta Chi and Robert F. Kennedy awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Neff exposed the misconduct of former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong in the Duke lacrosse case and won the Sigma Delta Chi award for his reporting on Blackwater, the former military contractor based in northeastern North Carolina. Before his journalism career, Neff taught beekeeping as a Peace Corps volunteer in west Africa.
David Raynor also joined The N&O in 1992. As the newsroom's database editor, he is responsible for acquiring, analyzing and maintaining public records. He has worked on many award-winning projects, including stories about the construction industry cheating on taxes by misclassifying workers, huge profits at North Carolina's nonprofit hospitals, courts' lenient treatment of serial and serious speeders, hundreds of millions of dollars wasted in the state's mental health system, and deaths in day cares.
Two Watauga YES students have gotten into a summer program at Phillips Exeter Academy, a New Hampshire boarding school, with financial aid covering most of the cost. Two others got scholarships to summer programs offered by the Duke Talent Identification Program. Four will fly to a San Francisco college awareness conference; for most, it will be their first time on an airplane.
And YES is bringing rising ninth-graders from its other three locations to join the Watauga students for a 10-day program at Appalachian State. When the subject came up in April, Seth, the 13-year-old, and his friend Shayne Scott voiced trepidation. Hicks had told them they’d be assigned roommates from the other cities.
“What is this about the New York people?” Shayne asked.
Seth rolled his eyes. “Can we room with each other? What happens if they’re weird?”
While the national buzz has been about getting students into Ivy League schools, Hicks says that’s not the only sign of success.
“The ultimate goal,” he said, “is really for them to be the most interesting individual who will challenge themselves.”