Alumni team up to help kids with math

The serendipitous California convergence of two Engineering alumni is adding up to better math skills for underprivileged Bay Area youth.

Charlie Simmons and Lew Epstein

Lew Epstein directs and Charlie Simmons funds an intensive summer math program aimed at building proficiency and self-esteem in middle schoolers.

Though Epstein and Simmons had never met, they had a lot in common: degrees from Washington University School of Engineering & Applied Science (Epstein earned a master’s degree in applied mechanics in 1971; Simmons earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1970), successful Silicon Valley careers behind them, and a passion for mathematics. That led them both to volunteer as math tutors through the local Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Epstein started tutoring middle school students in East Palo Alto —socioeconomically distant from neighboring high-tech, highly educated Palo Alto. Disparities also existed in education quality.

“I was working with sixth and seventh graders who had second- and third-grade math skills,” he says. “To do anything in math you have to have a foundation — adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying. These kids didn’t have that.”
Epstein wanted to remedy that.

“I saw I could continue tutoring and help one or two kids, or I could get a position where I could help hundreds or thousands,” he said.

Luckily, he found the right gig: executive director at The José Valdés Math Institute, which for 25 years has run summer classes focusing on underserved middle school and high school students. Its astonishing results spring from an astonishing regimen, Epstein says.

“We tell the kids, ‘We want you to give up your summer, get up at 5:30 every morning and ride a bus to the Stanford campus to spend eight hours a day doing nothing but studying math. By the way, when you go home you have two hours of homework. And we would like you to do this four days a week for seven weeks,’” Epstein says.

“People say, ‘That’s not going to work.’ And at the end of the first week the kids really do hate it, and they hate me. But by the end of the seven-week program the kids are in tears because the program is ending. The first thing they ask me at graduation is, ‘Can I come back next year?’
“The success rate is very high. In fact, the Stanford associate dean who heads its diversity program and works with us is a Valdés graduate who started out as a migrant farm worker,” Epstein says.

Similarly, Simmons’ experiences as a tutor left him frustrated. A high school geometry student had to pull out her calculator to multiply 10 times 12. And he had algebra students who couldn’t add fractions.

“I was lamenting this to the head of the Boys & Girls Clubs, who told me about Lew then connected us,” Simmons says. “We hit it off, and the rest is history.”

That brief history consists of Simmons funding the expansion of the Valdés Institute’s reach in the Ravenswood School District. He also helped to establish a STEM coordinator in the district.

“The district superintendent called in the principals to explain the program,” Simmons says. “They were not happy, as it meant extra work, and they didn’t know anything about the institute. But then one of the principals piped in that she had gone to Valdés and it had changed her life — ‘transformational’ was the word she used. And you could see the other principals perk up and start to listen.”

Simmons, who was in the first class of Langsdorf Scholars in Engineering, now funds two-thirds of the 180 students at the tuition-free institute. Most come from Hispanic families in which parents possess minimal formal education, limiting their ability to help with math homework. That funding pays the salaries of teachers, most of whom teach elsewhere during the school year and return to Valdés summer after summer, Epstein says. Each is supported by two paid college student-assistants in their classrooms, which have 22-24 students
“Last year we took 70 percent of the students up a whole grade level in math,” says Simmons, who also funds several scholarships at Washington University.

But the benefits reach beyond math scores, Epstein says.

“Not only do we help these kids out in math, but the kids also develop greater self-confidence and self-esteem because they are starting to enjoy some success in school,” he says. “During the following school year they then do better generally, not just in math.”

The program was started by math teacher José Valdés in 1988 with the premise that everybody can learn.
“It turns out that the kids from East Palo Alto are just as capable as the kids from Palo Alto,” Epstein says. “All they need are the same resources and the same support system.”