Commencement ceremonies at Oak Park and River Forest High School June 11 were for most graduating seniors cause for unrestrained joy. For Michelle Harton, an OPRF parent, District 97 school board member and co-founder of the Math Academy for African-American students, it was a little bittersweet.

Since 2000, Harton and her husband, Austin, have run the Math Academy, with support from other parents and academy alumni, to help students reach success both in and out of the classroom. Ten students who graduated last month were with the Hartons from the beginning.

“Those kids were a blessing to Austin and me,” said Harton. “They are like my own children.”

For 10 months out of the year, including several weeks during the summer, students are given hands-on tutoring in subjects ranging from algebra to geometry. Beginning in seventh grade, students are tutored all the way through high school. The primary goal is to prepare them for honors math classes at OPRF and for graduation. For the last six years, the program has also taught the values of hard work, maintaining a strong work ethnic and building positive peer relationships, according to the students and parents involved.

It is also helping shatter some of the stereotypes associated with Oak Park’s academic achievement gap. The graduating OPRF and academy students plan on going to college. The students and their parents recently met with the Hartons at their Oak Park home for a celebration.

“It was really overwhelming for me to see the students who were in seventh grade pushing for excellence,” said Austin Harton. “I’ve seen that in all the students, all the way through. And when you think about the future with students like this, you feel really excited.”

The academy began, the Hartons recalled, to help tutor seventh grade students in courses like Basic Continuing Math and Basic Algebra. Sessions took place at their home, area churches and at Emerson Junior High (later replaced by and renamed Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School).

The program, funded mainly by the Hartons out of their own pockets, now has roughly 60 students from OPRF, Dist. 97, Fenwick and Providence-St. Mel, a private high school on Chicago’s West Side.

Beating the achievement gap

The academy helped prepare the Oak Park students for honors and advanced placement math classes at OPRF. One of the alums, Nia Brown, a 2006 OPRF graduate and original Math Academy student, plans to attend Boston University, majoring in International Relations. Like other academy students, she knows the achievement gap issue all too well. Brown and others recalled feeling stereotyped by some of their teachers at OPRF. Sometimes, she said, she felt looked upon as just “a loud black woman.”

“I’m very outspoken and talkative and especially in math classes with some of the teachers, that’s all I was to them,” she said. “From the moment I walked into class, you could tell by the way they treated me.”

Brown said there were many good teachers in Oak Park, but there were also those who didn’t push them to excel.

“Sometimes you get caught up in these circumstances where teachers tell you to be proud of something that’s not worthy of anything,” she said. “The Hartons pushed us against the environment. They helped us to find ourselves according to our strengths rather than our weaknesses or the weaknesses that others see that may or may not be there.”

Parent Marcia Green, whose daughter Deanna will attend Rutgers University, majoring in sociology, said she couldn’t imagine where the children would be today if not for the Hartons and the academy.

“They’ve given them so much,” she said. “They have been the parents to our kids without even realizing it. They brought this group of girls together, they formed their relationships, and that bond is still there in their senior year.”

Cecile Keith-Brown, Nia’s mother, added that universities routinely look at how applicants do on advanced placement classes in high school. She said the academy students were prepared for college from the time they entered the academy.

“These children have worked really, really hard,” she said. “All of these children have excelled. They have done well. They did more than what was generally expected of them. And it’s because of the Hartons establishing a support group, working with them and tutoring them.”

On July 9, the original Math Academy students, their parents, and new members met at the Hartons home to reminisce about past and reflect on the students’ future. Harton, in particular, is emotional in reflection.

“You start to look at your life and the legacy that you will leave, and I know I was sort of raised in this environment to think about legacies,” she said, “but if I can touch each one of you, and you can touch a thousand people or a hundred people or 50 people, then I have touched them too … that’s a powerful gift you give to me.”

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