Building a culture of success – New York State high school/college science enrichment program, minority students

New York

A new report on New York State’s Science and Technology
Entry Program (STEP) and its college counterpart (C-STEP) shows that
these enrichment programs were responsible, in the words of the outside
evaluator, for “dramatically raising the academic performance of their
students,” most of whom are African American, Hispanic, and low-income.

The New York State legislature funded the STEP program in 1986 in
response to statistics showing that very few African American and
Hispanic students were becoming scientists and doctors. STEP’s aim is
to groom students for the scientific professions.

“The reason these programs have been so fantastic is that they
[have] provided opportunities for youth that they never would have
had,” says Dr. Marlene Klyvert, a STEP program director.

Klyvert is assistant dean of special programs and associate
professor at Columbia University’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery.
Her STEP program works with students beginning in the seventh grade.

Despite annual funding battles and the apparent indifference to
them on the part of a great many schools, STEP and C-STEP are still
operating twelve years after their inception, and have chalked up some
remarkable successes. In 1995-96, for example, 74.7 percent of C-STEP’s
784 graduates were either in graduate school or employed in scientific
fields. Two of the students have won the prestigious Westinghouse award
for high school science projects.

Klyvert’s program runs from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day for a
month in the summer, plus a year-long program every Saturday. The
younger students work on math and science in the morning and spend
afternoons on scientifically-related field trips. Older students are
paired with research scientists to work on specific research projects.

Jason Morton has participated in the program since the seventh
grade and was recently accepted by the University of Southern
California (USC) as a premedical student. Klyvert says Morton had been
tracked into a non-science curriculum by his school in Yonkers, N.Y.,
despite his stated desire to become a doctor.

“It’s not that [the school was] discouraging, but they were not
encouraging,” Morton says. “The idea among many minorities is that
going to professional school is too much of an effort, it’s too
expensive. There’s a real sense of fear. [The STEP program] instills a
sense of courage instead.”

STEP introduced Morton to Dr. Barry Honig of Columbia Presbyterian
Hospital, whom he has assisted on biochemical research projects
studying DNA and AIDS.

“Jason is a great kid and clearly got a lot out of the summer,”
Honig said. “The message of his success is that bright motivated
students can gain a lot from a summer experience in a lab where people
are willing to invest the time required to get them started.”

Deborah Morton, a secretary at Columbia University and Jason’s mom,
credits the STEP program with helping her son get accepted into USC’s
pre-medicine program.

“The study skills, the mentors — the fact that he was able to see
professionals engaged in research” were all important, she says.

A Whole New World

STEP introduces students to a world they may never have known,
Klyvert says, because schools that serve African American, Hispanic,
and poor children often have weak math and science programs — leading
to measurable lags among their students.

“They are so far behind in the sciences that they can’t compete
with the other students [when they get to college]. There are
components of science they never knew existed,” says Klyvert.

Jacqueline McCloud, who runs the STEP and C-STEP programs for the
Associated Medical Schools of New York — a consortium of the fourteen
medical schools — says that in many inner-city schools, guidance
counselors and teachers discourage students, particularly minority

“We have one young man who just finished fourth in his class in
medical school who was told [by teachers] there was no way in hell he
was going to medical school,” McCloud says.

Another problem McCloud has observed is that a good percentage of
teachers instructing math and science in the inner-city schools are
teaching “out of license,” or without degrees in math or science. STEP
and C-STEP cannot solve that problem, but they provide an avenue for
some students to circumvent it.

In 1995-96, 5,134 secondary students from 804 schools were served
by STEP across New York State. Of those, 65.1 percent were in the more
rigorous regents mathematics and science classes and 30.9 percent took
accelerated, honors, or advance placement mathematics. And the vast
majority of students received As and Bs in their classes. Because the
state does not collect student course enrollment data by race or
gender, it is not possible to compare data exactly. But overall, only
37.8 percent of New York’s students took the regents mathematics

“The participation rates of STEP students in demanding, advanced
courses far exceed those of minority students who do not participate in
STEP programs,” the report said.

Conducted by MC Squared, a Vermont-based consulting organization,
the study also says that C-STEP, has been instrumental in helping
minority students achieve at high levels in the sciences at the college

Funding and Support

Despite its track record, funding is always an issue for STEP and
C-STEP. Generally, the programs cost about $940 a year per student, and
waiting for the New York State legislature to appropriate the requisite
money every year is a cliffhanger.

“We [Democrats) have led the fight to fund these highly successful
initiatives in recent state budgets against Republican efforts to
decimate these programs,” New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said
through a spokesman. “The wisdom of our approach clearly can be seen in
the current Westinghouse Scholars, among whom are several STEP
students. These students have had their abilities in these critical
educational areas advanced through STEP in middle school and high
school and continue to receive support in pursuing science and
high-tech degrees through C-STEP in college.”

In many or the budgets submitted to the assembly by Republican Gov.
George Pataki, the STEP budget has been cut or reduced substantially.
It has taken the support of the Democrats to keep the program alive
“The governor doesn’t like the program,” is the way Silver’s spokesman
put it.

Charles Deister, a spokesman for the governor, said that the new
budget includes $7.5 million for the STEP and C-STEP programs and that
the governor’s budgets in general have been “very supportive of higher
education in New York State.”

“Sometimes during the summer the programs can’t function,” McCloud
says. “A few years ago we had $10 million a year. This year it’s $7.5
million. We’ve had to do some very creative things.”

“We’ve been fighting every year for the program” is the way Dr.
David L. Ferguson, who is co-director of the C-STEP program at the
State University of New York at Stony Brook, puts it.

Ferguson, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of
California-Berkeley, says that he has focused his work on building a
supportive community for the program participants. C-STEP organizes,
for example, study groups and tutoring sessions as well as internships
for undergraduates to participate in graduate level research projects.
The budding of an “academic community of support” is key to its
success, he said. One of his measures of success is retention, and 76
percent of students who join C-STEP in their freshman year graduate and
stay in the sciences.

“If they’re given this kind of support,” Ferguson says, “they do well.”

The C-STEP program at the City University of New York’s City
College — one of the state’s biggest programs — also concentrates on
building a community of support for its students. Its director, Dr.
Millicent Roth, is a social worker by training. When she began ten
years ago, she concentrated on reducing the sense of intimidation many
minority students feel about the sciences.

“I got here and wondered why the sciences are such a monster,” she recalls.

Now, ten years later, the program has between 300 and 400 students
every year and, Roth says, is instrumental in the fact that City
College is one of the nation’s top producers of African American
baccalaureates in the math science fields.

“We have counseling and mentoring,” Roth says. “Our students help each other get into medical school.”

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