Twenty-one fourth graders shouted with glee earlier this year as they observed fluorescent “green worms” in Professor Richard Morimoto’s state-of-the-art biology lab at Northwestern University.
Minutes later, peering through microscopes for a second time, they examined some of their favorite cereals. To their obvious delight, they discovered how much sugar — “lots!” — coats Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops.
These enthusiastic learners are members of Project EXCITE, an unprecedented seven-year collaboration between Northwestern University, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Evanston Township High School (ETHS) District 202. The project, now in its fifth year, has already received almost $500,000 from Northwestern.
Project EXCITE bolsters other efforts by the superintendents of both districts to close the well-documented academic achievement gap between minority and non-minority students existing not only at Evanston schools but also at schools across the country. Specifically, EXCITE’s goal is to increase the numbers of minority students in accelerated math and science courses and the rigorous Chemistry/Physics program at ETHS.
“Graduates of the Chem/Phys program gain admission to the nation’s top tier universities,” says long-time ETHS mathematics teacher John Benson, but there are “far too few” students of color in the accelerated program.
Six years ago, Benson and ETHS teachers Mark Vondracek and Ron Sellke began thinking about ways to increase the numbers of minority students in their advanced math and science classes. All three for many years taught summer enrichment classes at Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development (CTD), and they were convinced that the kind of “intensive but fun” instruction offered there could help prepare gifted District 65 minority students for advanced high school classes.
They gained the support of Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development director and a national leader in the field of gifted education. In a relatively short time North-western and Evanston’s two school districts were on board, making Project EXCITE a reality. Today Project EXCITE involves almost 100 minority students in grades three through seven from 10 District 65 schools.
To promote and support the interest and abilities of EXCITE participants, the students take Saturday and summer enrichment classes at the Center for Talent Development free of charge. The Center’s Project EXCITE coordinators, Mephie and Daphne Ngoi, administer and coordinate a host of math and science activities for EXCITE participants on both Northwestern’s campus and at ETHS.
“What Project EXCITE wants above all is to make science and math learning fun and reinforce the idea that there is nothing ‘nerdy’ about being curious and smart,” says Olszewski-Kubilius.
By all accounts, it’s working. EXCITE coordinator and former ETHS chemistry teacher Mephie Ngoi and District 65 mathematics curriculum coordinator Randee Blair report that Project EXCITE is on track to reach its goals.
Already more minority students are taking algebra in middle school than ever before. If the first cohort of EXCITE students remains on track this year and next, all will have completed Algebra 1 and some Algebra 1 and Geometry before entering ETHS as freshmen in 2006. This will enable them to take calculus as seniors in high school, making them candidates for the Chem/Phys program.
Parent involvement is a hallmark of Project EXCITE. Parents are asked to commit to getting their students to and from Center for Talent Development classes and encourage them to stay with EXCITE even as its demands increase in the middle school years.
“Those are particularly crucial years,” says CTD director Olszewski-Kubilius. “It’s when peer pressure intensifies and often redirects children’s interests away from school.”
To combat these pressures, Project EXCITE works hard to create a community of students who know one another and support one another’s intellectual curiosity. Student mentors from Northwestern and ETHS are brought in to work with EXCITE participants and reinforce the goals of achievement.
In five years, the program’s retention rate remains high, with students dropping out generally because they are leaving the district. While their peers are home Saturday mornings, Project EXCITE students attend class willingly. “They want to be in class, and most consider it a great privilege to be part of Project EXCITE,” says Rita Fallon, a King Lab School teacher during the week and fourth grade EXCITE teacher on Saturdays.
John Benson is counting on their continued enthusiasm as he awaits his EXCITE students’ arrival as ETHS students. “No way can I retire,” the 35-plus year veteran ETHS teacher declares. “I promised the first Project EXCITE group I worked with as third graders that I’d be here to teach them multivariable calculus when they were ready.”