Battle Creek Math and Science Center inspires youth to reach their potential

Luke Perry knew Armani Poindexter was a gifted student. And even though the 17-year-old and her family were going through some hard times, he was not about to let her fail to realize her full potential.
   
Perry, the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) director at the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center since 2013, was Poindexter’s middle school principal. In eighth grade, she applied to the center, a high school for talented students seeking accelerated studies in math and science, but didn’t do well. Perry didn’t give up on her.

"Her test scores were not great, but it wasn’t for lack of ability," he says. "It was a lack of something else. I told her, ‘Armani, you’re going to be a student here.'"

He followed her once she became a student at Battle Creek Central High School, checking in with her, giving her support. Now a senior, she was admitted to the center last year.

"He saw my potential, and now everything’s changed for me," Poindexter says.

Her family has endured their struggles over the years. There has been illnesses and issues with money. Most recently, she and her mother and sister were evicted from their home, and the family is temporarily split up while they seek permanent housing.

But the center has become a sort of refuge for her, a place where her academic gifts are nurtured, challenged, and celebrated. She credits Perry’s active involvement in her life with helping chart her path forward.

"I found my career path here–forensic science," she says. "This is more than just a high school. It’s at the edge of college. They believed in me and didn’t give up on me."

Poindexter is one of those teens who help other kids with their homework after school, who take time out of their lunch to assist another student with a science problem, who get text messages from friends struggling with a math class. And she’s also one of those students who might be overlooked in a current educational paradigm that all too often focuses attention on kids who struggle, sometimes at the expense of those who do not.

"I remember teachers saying I was smart, that they just thought I should know things," she says. "It got to the point where I didn’t even know if I could ask a question if I had one."

Research suggests that overlooking these gifted students is a detriment to society in the long run. Precociously talented kids outweigh the rest of society in their influence when they peak in their careers, becoming the inventors, researchers, and creators whose contributions help shape society for generations. Focusing on them helps all of us.

Now in its 25th year, the center is a place where STEM-gifted students are given a place to grow their talents, regardless of affluence or socio-economic status. Perry says no child is overlooked if they show potential.

"We focus on a kid’s future, not their past," he says. "We have an open door here. What do I lose by having more students? It’s not for everyone. It’s tough. But in the end, if a student shows potential, I want to give them an opportunity."

Currently, there are 384 students at the center, representing 17 school districts in Calhoun and parts of Branch and Barry counties. Every fall, Perry meets with each eighth-grade class in those districts, pitching the center and its programs. Students that score in the 80th percentile and above on a test that measures critical thinking, English, and math and science abilities are invited to fill one of the 117 open slots each year.

"That’s what makes us unique in the world of advanced high schools," Perry says. "Other programs focus only on the already identified talented kids. We try to focus on everyone. Just like Armani."

Students enrolled at the center spend half their academic day there, taking four classes per semester – challenging classes. Before they leave the center, all students are required to take calculus, and advanced classes in biology, chemistry, physics and statistics. A research class is also mandatory.

But that’s just half the story, Perry says. The center’s STEM curricula allows for deeper dives into these core classes, with students in their junior year exposed to diverse facets of learning in a given field, like biochemistry in a chemistry core class, or biotechnology in an advanced biology class.

"I never thought I would be in anything science-related until now," says Olivia Davis, 17, and a senior at Battle Creek Central. "When we started studying environmental biology, I got hooked. Now, I am thinking about environmental law. If I hadn’t come here, I don’t know if I would have known anything about that."

Based on what piques students’ interest in these deeper academic dives, faculty and staff can support a student’s desire to check out a particular STEM field further. The center–a facility that’s glass classroom walls give a feeling of openness and transparency–takes a community-based approach to learning where decisions are made cooperatively with a student’s strengths in mind.

Sicily McLaughlin, 17, and also a senior at Central, can’t remember how many places her family has stayed over the past several years. McLaughlin and her brother and mother have been homeless three times, living with family at one point and friends at others. No place has felt exactly like home, but the center feels like one, she says.

"You see some kids here with MacBooks and some with nice cars, but I have not felt like I was different, even though some of us don’t have as much as others," she says. "Life has been hard at times, but I’ve gotten a lot of support from my teachers, especially from this place. Everyone has a shot."

It’s not a surprise then that McLaughlin is helping out with a research project in the Battle Creek area on understanding how lack of educational opportunities affects the community, as well as pushing Perry to increase diversity at the center. This year, 13 percent of the students enrolled are minorities, up from 11 percent last year. That number rises to 25 percent if Asian-Americans are included.

"She came to me with this issue and said she wanted to work on it," Perry says. "I said go for it. How can we help? How can we collaborate? She’s pushing me all the time. My idea is to let the student be self-directed, and let the staff support that. It’s my philosophy that if a problem exists, let’s have the students come up with a solution because they’re probably better than mine."

Like the center says, "If you want to know what the Center is really like, go straight to the smartest people in the building: the student."

Chris Killian has been a writer and journalist in the Kalamazoo area for over 10 years. His work has been published in multiple local publications, including the Kalamazoo Gazette and WMUK. You can find more about Killian, his work, and projects he’s working on by visiting chriskillian.net.

Photos by Susan Andress


This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
 
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