Thursday, June 13, 2024

A Cambridge Math Circle summer camp, held at Harvard University, on June 30. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

Giving the nonprofit Cambridge Math Circle a city budget supplement of $100,000 could set a troubling precedent, city councillors warned during a recent vote.

In a 5-4 vote June 26, the Council decided to ask the city manager for additional money to go toward the budget of Cambridge Math Circle, which was established in 2018 by teachers Mira Bernstein and Nataliya Yufa and serves elementary and middle school students in Cambridge and surrounding towns. If acted on, some councillors argued, the increase might motivate other nonprofits to also ask for similar funding.

“There are a lot of nonprofits that do really amazing work with our students,” said vice mayor Alanna Mallon, who voted against the order. “I think it’s opening a door that I’m not sure we want to open.”

Councillor E. Denise Simmons said she worries funding the program is unfair to other local nonprofits. “We should have a policy or practice or procedure that is fair to all entities,” she said. “I think it does set a precedent that we may not be prepared for.”

Councillor Marc McGovern echoed Mallon’s hesitations about the proposal, but encouraged the school district to support the work of Cambridge Math Circle and other programs like it.

“We all have programs that we’re attached to and that we really like, and it would just open potential floodgates,” McGovern said. “But I do want to push back on the school department to step up and support this program that’s within our schools.”

While councillor Patty Nolan, who voted in favor of the order, said she agrees with McGovern in urging Cambridge Public Schools to fund Cambridge Math Circle or incorporate it into its programming in the future, she said she supports the budget increase by the City.

“Math in the Cambridge Public Schools has had some changes that have been quite distressing to a huge range of people,” she said, referring to decisions such as backing away from ensuring all students have a chance to complete Algebra I by the end of eighth grade. “This is absolutely, precisely the kind of program we need.”

With math scores reaching their lowest in decades, councillor Dennis Carlone said he proposed the funding because Cambridge Math Circle is needed to address “where the gaps are in math.” There are other nonprofits that get money from the city – and he proposed $100,000 as proportionate with other programs – but wanted to offer help to a young nonprofit so it survives long enough to get as rooted in the community as groups such as Tutoring Plus and the Cambridge School Volunteers.

“This is the only group that is like this in the city,” Carlone said. “There’s no question we should be supporting this.”

More than 80 percent of students said their confidence in math has increased as a result of Cambridge Math Circle classes, according to a survey conducted by the nonprofit.

Cambridge Math Circle has five focus areas – problem solving, grit, mental math, deep previewing and joyful learning – that guide its programming approach. The nonprofit’s classes include material not typically taught in schools, including at a $600 summer camp with sessions July 31 and Aug. 7 for children entering third through eighth grade. Camp scholarships are available for low-income families.

Math Circle teacher Grace Zhang told councillors she’s seen “tremendous growth” in students over the three years she has worked there.

“Many of our students come from groups currently underrepresented in Stem fields,” Zhang said in a public comment, referring to science, technology, engineering and math. “The teachers and guest speakers serve as role models and show the students that they too can be a mathematician, a scientist, an engineer or even an astronaut.”