Marshall Jeffries, 23, was often one of only a few African American students in his honors and AP classes at Oak Park and River Forest High School — but he wasn’t lonely.
“There was always someone to check in and study with,” he said, adding that, more often than not, he knew the other black student in any given advanced math class. Jeffries got that familiarity — the sense of camaraderie and community — because of a program called Math Academy.
The premise of the program was simple. Identify African American students in Oak Park with the ability to do advanced math and give them the apparatus of support that many white kids take for granted.
“Every summer, we would get this math packet and obviously we didn’t want to do it,” Jeffries recalled in a recent interview.
“The problems were so hard, way harder than anything we’d get in a regular test in our classes,” he said. “They were meant to challenge us, to make us go above and beyond the material, to understand the concepts. We had to really get together in a group and figure this stuff out.”
But Math Academy went beyond academic preparation — it also allowed them to discover parts of themselves that may have remained obscured had they not participated in the program, many Math Academy alumnae said.
“I’m sure many of us were probably called Oreos and asked, ‘Why do you talk so white?’ and I really didn’t understand that culturally and historically,” said Camilla Brewer, 26. “So, the program gave me an opportunity to experience my blackness and develop who I was — not what people thought I should be.”
The students watched movies like “The Great Debaters” and “Eyes on the Prize,” and read Langston Hughes poems and essays by W.E.B. DuBois.
At its core, the program was an education in black excellence (often obscured by the national focus on sociological data, such as poverty and crime statistics) that was imported by its founders, Austin and Michelle Harton, from the segregated South.
Michelle grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Austin in Birmingham, Alabama. He knew one of the four girls who were killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. He can recall her funeral.
In the fight against explicit, de jure racism, the couple recalled during a recent interview, there was strong social cohesion.
“Our parents had to teach us how to cope in that environment,” said Michelle, a former District 97 school board member. “You could not let stereotypes impact you. Excellence was the standard. We had to push through any kind of –ism if you were going to make it.”
“We wanted to make them realize that excellence in everything, including education, was a legacy,” Austin said. “Black people came out of slavery starting colleges. That’s the kind of legacy they’re continuing. They’re standing on shoulders. We wanted our students to realize, ‘Hey, if my forebears did it in those conditions, I have to do my part.'”
The Hartons were both professional engineers living in Oak Park and raising two daughters, when they were forced to channel that legacy in a very explicit way. Their youngest daughter, Marie, was slated for a lower track.
“We were like, ‘No, that’s not going to work,'” Michelle said. “So, we went to the department chair at District 97 to make the case why Marie should take algebra — not another year of arithmetic. While we were there, we asked about other black students.”
The Hartons said that they noticed that hardly any of their daughter’s African American friends were in that top math track. The department chair told them that the problem “would be something handled by parents.” So, they gathered parents during their daughter’s sixth-grade graduation and asked how interested they would be in sending their children to a math tutoring program.
In 2000, they started meeting students at a church in Maywood before moving their meetings to schools in District 97. In the beginning, the couple helped any student who would come to them, typically during the summers. Through word-of-mouth, the program grew. They averaged roughly 15 students a year, they said.
Michelle would work with seventh- and eighth-graders while Austin would tutor high school students in everything from math and physics to chemistry.
The program, they said, was “heavily supported” by District 97, which provided them with curriculum materials, space and even janitorial staff who would make sure they were OK while working in the buildings at night. The parents provided transportation and myriad other supports. Math Academy, they said, became one big family.
“We had all kinds of families — from homes where both the mother and father were present to single mothers,” Michelle said. “A good deal of Math Academy was also teaching parents how to advocate for their kids. Just as you had students who had issues of belonging, you also had parents who were disconnected.
“Once parents learn how to advocate for their kids and how to navigate the system, they quickly become experts at it,” she said.
The Hartons maintained the program for some 13 years before moving into full-time education. Michelle teaches math to students at Chicago Public Schools while Austin is a chemistry and physics professor at Chicago State University.
They’ve left a trail of black excellence in their wake, starting with their two daughters. Marie and Renee, like their parents, are graduates of MIT. Marie obtained a Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University and is doing postdoctoral research at the National Cancer Institute. Renee has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Michigan and is doing postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Jeffries, who graduated in 2013, went to college on a full scholarship that he credits, in large part, to his time spent toiling in Math Academy. This year, he graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with a degree in accounting and finance, before starting his first full-time job with a consulting company. Brewer is now a college administrator working in Georgia.
And there are more Math Academy alums whose influence stretches from hospitals and universities to former president Barack Obama’s White House.
The Hartons said that they’ve recently been getting entreaties from community leaders to revive Math Academy, something they’re at least considering.
“If there’s any opportunity to increase capacity and bring Math Academy back, I would push for that, because I don’t think black students are being tracked into lower tracks because they can’t do the work,” Brewer said. “There’s just not enough opportunity and sometimes, equity looks like this program.”