When Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Brian McDonald dropped in at McKinley School some years back to visit an informal 5th-grade math club, run by local parents Jason and Sandy Roberts as an extension of the math field day they had been recruited for, he stopped in his tracks.
McDonald, a former high school math teacher, saw a group of typical, squirrelly 10-year-olds hopping up and down at a whiteboard to do something atypical: map out accelerated geometry and trigonometry problems under the tutelage of Jason Roberts, casually coaching from a desk in the corner.
“I really was blown away by what I saw — this went way beyond preparing them for math field day,” McDonald recalled. He asked Roberts if he thought he could flesh out what he was teaching into a kind of prototype course to be taught across the district.
“I was like ‘Well, I thought you’d never ask,’” joked Roberts, recalling the humble beginnings of Math Academy.
Flash forward to now, and PUSD’s Math Academy is celebrating a new classroom at Pasadena High School, with about 200 students in the program across the high school and three district middle schools: McKinley, Sierra Madre and Washington STEAM Multilingual Magnet, as well as added support to math-inclined students in northwest Pasadena. Newly minted post-doctorate professors are teaching classes, and this year the pilot-program kids, now PHS sophomores, continue to blaze a trail — they’ve already completed AP calculus and are working at a sophomore/junior level in college applied mathematics, like abstract algebra and differential equations.
Next year, those teens will apply to college. The team of collaborators and PUSD administrators who’ve helped Math Academy along the way are buzzing with excitement at the thought. Few colleges will have seen kids like these before.
“It’s my opinion that these students can get into any university across the country — this course is that rigorous. [Granted,] I’m rusty, but these kids run circles around me,” McDonald noted.
Math Academy would not be where it is but for the infectious excitement it has spread to virtually every person who steps in to see the program in action, garnering dedicated support from the Pasadena Educational Foundation, a PUSD advocate that came aboard early on and helped secure a prestigious W.M. Keck Foundation grant of $300,000.
PEF Executive Director Patrick Conyers said the sparks flew as soon as he saw the class.
“Jason and Sandy are such passionate, enthusiastic and welcoming people, they wanted everyone to see the magic of what was happening in the classroom. This has been a great example of partnership within the district and the private and nonprofit sector,” he said.
Word quickly spread to the Pasadena Community Foundation, which manages more than $90 million in charitable assets and helps guide philanthropic funds to nonprofits across the country; it has earmarked $500,000-$600,000 to the program so far. That includes a major gift of $300,000 from the Pasadena-based investment firm Arroyo Capital Management, which for several years has sought to make an impact on PUSD in support for math and science programs and donated a total of about $500,000 to the district.
Recently, the team of donor partners, including PUSD administrators, came together at the freshly painted, upper-story PHS Math Academy classroom to celebrate its success. The Arroyo Capital team, with a long history in local philanthropy, was awarded a plaque in recognition of its new gift and support.
Another bonus to adding a classroom at PHS, Jason and Sandy Roberts noted, is that juniors and seniors who already completed AP calculus now have another accelerated math option to attend on campus either to refresh their earlier studies or as a precursor to collegiate courses, adding to the ranks of the 9th-grade class.
“We’re very happy and proud to be based in Pasadena, and we have a sense of need to give back to the community, which has been so meaningful to our business over the years,” said Arroyo Capital managing partner Christopher Bragg, who also grew up in the area. He noted that the company’s founding partner, John McGrain, was a product of PUSD schools and graduated from John Muir High School. “We hope this spurs a little more participation from other business owners as well, as we keep building something tremendous in the public school system.”
PCF Executive Director Jennifer DeVoll also spoke to the “strength in partners” adage to help propel Math Academy to where it is now.
“We’ve had the privilege to assist Arroyo Capital in building an engaged, long-term philanthropic relationship with PUSD,” DeVoll said. “We’ve been so pleased to partner with them as part matchmaker and part vehicle for their philanthropy to support Math Academy, in particular, and PEF also has been a wonderful partner in raising the funds to launch it.”
On a personal note, Bragg said he was enamored with the results at Math Academy from the first introduction through PCF.
“I was a math guy, yes, so when I first saw this group of young boys and girls back at McKinley I was floored. … We haven’t found that there’s anything like this across the country, either,” Bragg said. “It really speaks to pushing the kids to a level that hasn’t necessarily been done before, and when I saw the levels these kids were reaching and at their ages? It just blows your mind and really says something about individuals like Jason and Sandy that believe in what they’re doing and aren’t afraid to test the waters.
“It’s a phenomenal program and I really think we’ll start to see this push nationwide and really elevate our education system.”
To that point, taking the program nationwide has been at the forefront of the Roberts’ minds from the beginning. Jason Roberts was the mathematician and consultant who wrote the original code for Uber’s technology platform, and Sandy was a University of Chicago economics major. Together, the couple had experience in navigating the start-up world, and knew that they needed the equivalent of an angel investor early on.
“It’s one thing to have a dream and some crazy ideas, but to actually make it all happen beyond just one little classroom is another story,” Jason Roberts said. “An angel investor is often the first person to believe in your idea … and [Arroyo Capital] did just that. We’ve had so many different people who’ve joined with us and helped make it a reality. This has been a big group effort, from so many different supporters. I think it’s a really telling story about the Pasadena public school system and what it’s able to do.”
Nearby, the Math Academy sophomores continued to do their work, partially listening in on the partners and supporters chat while taking turns on whiteboard work.
David Gieselman, 16, explained that he chose to attend PUSD just because of Math Academy, even though his home school district is South Pasadena Unified, recently ranked as one of the top systems in the nation.
“I am 100% here because of Math Academy. It was a very difficult decision that my family had to make, but I’m very happy I came here and I’m very happy that I stuck with this program. I can’t imagine where I’d be if I wasn’t at Math Academy,” he said.
Classmate Riley Paddock, 15, of Altadena, said he feels as if the program has made math a lot of fun over the years.
“Regular math class can get kind of boring and slow, so this has been a lot of fun, it really enriches you and has helped us blossom as scholars with all this accumulated knowledge. You never feel too overwhelmed, even with the really complex math, because it all builds on itself,” Paddock said.
The small group of friends spoke of college casually, shrugging off where they might apply yet or knowing what they want to do when they’re older. For now, one is thinking he’d like to continue studying mathematics, while others are leaning toward studies in engineering, computer science or software development. Mostly, they were excited to go eat lunch, with one boy exclaiming, “I can’t wait for my sandwich!” as the bell rang.
Sandy Roberts chuckled that the older group, on the whole, is relaxed and easy going, as are the younger Math Academy students. They don’t believe in saddling the kids with existential pressures, she laughed, although she acknowledged that can happen to kids in highly accelerated learning programs.
“I think one of the reasons they’re not stressed out is because we’ve always treated them like the kids that they are,” she said. “Yes, they’re learning college material, but we don’t expect them to act like college kids. We expect them to act like sophomores in high school. And even our 6th-graders are taught like 6th-graders … so we meet them at their developmental needs, with the math curriculum and the social and emotional needs as well. It’s a whole-person kind of development.”
As for PUSD, which had to make some tough budgetary calls recently to close schools due to declining enrollment, Math Academy is seen as one of its competitive advantages.
“We are pulling in a lot of students from outside of the district [with the program]; a lot of JPL and Caltech parents, parents from surrounding school districts, want to know more about this, because no other school district has this kind of rigorous program,” McDonald said. “We tend to focus on kids that are struggling and need help the most, and rightfully so, but by the same token we have to focus on kids that are gifted and talented and really take them to that next level.”