LUMBERTON — Michael Stember’s legs have taken him around the world.
The track star, who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, is now trying to shrink the globe for local children through a math camp hosted by Ben Chavis, a Robeson County native who is widely acclaimed for his innovative educational methods.
“In track, you don’t have people starting at different places — everyone has the same starting line,” Stember said. “We are drilling into these kids that they have the same opportunity, … if we provide it to them, they are going to compete. That’s why I was so attracted to the model. I walked into the classroom in Oakland a couple years ago and I said, ‘Wow, these kids are competing at the highest level academically, and yet you look at their socioeconomic background and it wouldn’t suggest that that’s the case usually.’”
Stember was one of many associates and former students of Chavis’ who were in Lumberton recently to host the American Indian Model Schools Math Camp — a three-week intensive camp that focused on improving students’ math skills.
The camp used the same model that Chavis implemented during his tenure as principal of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif., a formula that took the school from being one of the lowest-scoring in the area to the one of the best in the nation.
“I’m sure critics would say that you can’t teach kids how to be great mathematicians in three weeks, but there’s no doubt that they improve,” said Stember, who is on the board of directors for the American Indian Model Schools. “Being exposed to this information for a set of hours a day during the summer versus not being exposed to it — I’d take the exposure any day of the week.”
Chavis said the school in Oakland has the highest passing rate for seniors in AP calculus in the country at 73 percent.
“We’re gonna come back and follow these kids every summer they come back,” Chavis said. “These sixth-graders, when they are seniors, we want them taking AP calculus. That’s my goal.”
In a brick building nestled behind two large pastures off of Rozier Church Road on Wednesday, students wore crisp white shirts as they ran up and down a dirt path, getting their daily mile in during physical education.
Apart from some exercise and an hour of language arts, the majority of the students’ days was spent learning math — basic math, pre-algebra, algebra, and algebra I and II. The camp was no-nonsense: The students faced high expectations and tough consequences.
“Colleges appreciate math,” Stember said. “It’s a pivot foot for entrance so that pivot foot is important for these kids to have. … The same model is in play here, which is challenge the kids, hard work, and discipline built around math class. It increases their chances later on.”
The students ranged from fourth- to ninth-graders, with most from the Public Schools of Robeson County, but some from South Carolina and a juvenile detention center. Karely Ordaz, a teacher at the camp, attended Chavis’ school in Oakland.
“When I was in (school) in Oakland, I was just living in the moment,” Ordaz said. “Going to the American Indian school, I learned discipline, I learned that you don’t have to live day by day. There’s always the future — what are you going to be when you grow up? Where are you going to go to college? … I really see myself in them, the way I used to think, like ‘I want to be a model, I want to be an actress, I want to live in Hollywood.’ That’s not being realistic.”
Ordaz is a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. She had about 20 children in her class, and said she was pleasantly surprised by how well they did.
“The expectations and self confidence from the majority of the kids was relatively low with math in the first couple of days, but as they get into it, it’s been amazing to see that they are shocking themselves how quickly they are being indoctrinated with simple concepts,” Stember said. “… These math competitions that they are having inside the classroom, it’s fun to watch how excited they are getting about math.”
Stoker said the poverty and low test scores in Robeson County make it an ideal place for Chavis’ model.
“You can’t sit back and do nothing,” said Rick Stoker, the camp director. “You have to try to encourage and plant the seed with these 57 here and they take it back with them and plant the seed at their schools and it can grow and get bigger and maybe they can make a difference among their classmates. That’s our goal … that it will make a difference throughout the whole community. You gotta start somewhere and these kids are like little seeds you drop them off all over the county and maybe it’ll take hold.”
Stoker, who is from Lumberton, helped Chavis implement the physical education program at the Oakland school, and has been helping out since. The two know each other from their track days in high school.
Aleah Cameron, an eighth-grader from Lumberton, came to the camp on her mother’s orders. She said the prospect of attending a camp about math was not originally thrilling for her, but she was happy she came.
“(I like) the way they teach things,” Cameron said. “… We work in the workbooks and with regular textbooks, but they just make it more clear.”
Cameron was originally placed in pre-algebra, but was moved up to algebra I. She thinks she will do better with the subject once school starts again. Chavis and his associates want to continue the math enrichment after September by starting a math club at Magnolia Elementary.
Jennifer Jones, a fifth-grade math teacher at Magnolia Elementary, will be helping to coordinate the club.
“I think the discipline that Dr. Chavis has to offer is really helping students,” Jones said. “When I go to visit the camp the students are just focused. … I love the program and how he meets everybody at their own level and goes from there. It’s a unique opportunity for students and they all seem to be excelling.”
Chavis plans to make the camp an annual event in Robeson County.
“It’s teaching kids that there’s more to life,” Ordaz said. “This is not the world. I wouldn’t want them to think that this is what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. I think they should start thinking about college, traveling and start realizing that Lumberton is not the world.”