On a cool, overcast Saturday morning while most kids were still in bed, dozens of middle school girls, in matching T-shirts, met in the Indian Spring Middle School library for a book discussion.
“You can be whatever you want to be,” Indian Spring Middle School assistant principal Desiree Hardeman said to three young women. “That’s really what this book is telling us. This is an example of four women that helped us understand that we could be whatever we want to be.”
Last month, 50 girls from five Waco Independent School District and Transformation Waco middle schools were selected to participate in a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math mentor program centered on the book, “Hidden Figures,” written by Margot Lee Shetterly, based on the experience of four female African American mathematicians hired to work hired to work as “human computers” during WWII and the early days of NASA.
“Our goal is to interest them in STEM, give them the confidence to do it and to create a sisterly camaraderie so that they can continue to encourage each other,” Phi Delta Kappa member Peaches Henry said.
Feeding off the popularity of the book’s movie debut, Henry, with the support of the school district and Phi Delta Kappa, spearheaded the project to keep young women from falling through the cracks of a math gender gap that typically develops and widens as students advance in high school, according to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“We know that these girls have mathematical abilities where they are excelling, but the research shows that they just drop off after middle school, so we are trying to encourage them so that that doesn’t happen,” Henry said.
More than a dozen female mentors from the NAACP, Phi Delta Kappa, Delta Sigma Theta, Gamma Sigma Rho, and Alpha Kappa Alpha volunteered to support the girls through the eight-month project. Each month, mentors meet with a group of about four girls, to discuss the book and future projects.
“I remember as a young girl being good at math and then just getting lost,” Delta Sigma Theta volunteer Syrenthia Rice said. “I wish somebody had pushed me to stay in those fields.”
Less than one month into the program, the book is already a favorite of Indian Spring Middle School sixth-grader Ra’shey Delesline.
“If I met her (Dorothy Vaughan) one day I would say thank you, because I’m a young black girl,” Delesline said. “I would say thank you, because if I was born then, I probably wouldn’t be able to get the job that I could get now.”
Rice said she hopes the book and the history of the civil rights movement inspire the young women to aim for success.
“A lot of the girls don’t know about segregation,” she said. “We don’t want them to be angry about it; we just want them to understand how far we’ve come as women, as people. … I know that’s what made me succeed was knowing, not just being black, but being a woman, too, I knew I had to succeed. I had to.”
As students finish the book, the mentors will help them brainstorm, research and complete their history and science fair projects.
Henry said she wants to see the girls compete and win at the campus, regional, state and national fair levels.
“I think that when you let kids shine they do. When you set high standards they rise to the standards and that is already happening,” she said.
A series of field trips are planned for the girls in coming months, along with a Hidden Figures STEM Summit in February.
“What we’re teaching our girls to do is to become leaders. … We’re hoping that this is going to be contagious and girls will gain confidence period, but gain confidence in their mathematical skills and share that skill with other girls that they encounter,” she said.
“That’s the thing about planting a seed, you plant one seed and your harvest is going to be widespread,” she said. “That’s what we’re anticipating will happen.”