Gifted Black Kids Thrive at Stem-Based Public Boarding High School

Malik Roberson in the Makerspace, which is the prototype space inside the Steve and Jamie Chen Center for Innovation & Inquiry at IMSA. This is where he built his skateboard.

Kendell Byrd had her doubts when she attended a presentation by Quintin Backstrom, an admissions counselor from the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), a public boarding high school for gifted kids based in Aurora. It only took 10 minutes for Byrd, a Homewood-Flossmoor (HF) High School freshman at the time, to change her attitude.

“At first I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll just check it out. I’m probably not interested in going to boarding school and being away from home for three years. Literally, upon 10 minutes of listening to the presentation, I was like, ‘I have to go here. This is where I belong,’” said Byrd.

Kendell Byrd. (Photo By Women of Color in Tech Chat)

Strong words from a student who was already attending HF, an academically robust and diverse institution with great teachers, a competitive sports program, and many successful students of color. So why would Kendall leave?

“Because at HF, which was great, they had Physics and AP Chemistry and different things like that. At IMSA, you had like Environmental Chemistry, and Advanced Chemistry, and Astronomy, and Physics Sound and Light, and Modern Physics. All these different, specific niche science and math courses that I was super interested in taking and being more versed in. That’s what appealed to me about the IMSA experience,” said Byrd, who graduated from IMSA in 2013 and is now a senior at Swarthmore College. She has already secured a job after she graduates in Los Angeles at BuzzFeed creating videos.

IMSA attracts students from all over the state with more than 50 counties in Illinois represented. About half of the kids, who live in seven residence halls, are from the greater Chicago area. You’d think living away from home would be hard at such a young age. Malik Roberson, a current IMSA senior from Bolingbrook, says it was tough at first.

“The first few weeks here I went home every weekend because I missed being home. I missed the home-cooked meals and my mom helping me with laundry, things like that. Over the years, I learned how to live by myself. I stay more weekends now, and taking care of myself has been a lot easier. Now, I’ll be more prepared for college living,” said Roberson.

Roberson, who is planning to study Aerospace Engineering at IIT in the fall, has set a goal of building the world’s fastest skateboard. He’s already got funding to get his project off the ground.

“About a year ago in January, I saw a YouTube video where I watched someone build one. I was like, ‘I can do that. It won’t be too bad.’ My first one was very sketchy, like things duct-taped together to a Walmart deck. Over the years, I made my own deck, got new enclosures, things like that. I was going about 20 miles per hour and thought, ‘Well, this is fast. I’m getting bored of this.’ I looked at the world record and realized I could probably do that with some money, so I looked into getting funding for it. I have a partner right now who is going to help fund me for the project. I’ll be receiving $2,000 for electronics, safety gear, deck, things like that. The record speed is 70 miles per hour,” said Roberson.

He’s working with Sherman Jenkins, chair of the board, Quad County African American Chamber of Commerce.  And Roberson will help the organization by writing articles to engage African Americans in STEM fields.

“Even if I am not successful in my endeavor to break the world record, it could be a good talking point for people who are interested in STEM. Showing that it’s not all about here are machines and here’s industry.  It can be something that you can do in your basement or something you can do in a workshop that benefits you and is a fun way to learn,” said Roberson

Roberson and Byrd are among many talented kids of color who attend and find success at IMSA, but it’s not easy to get in. Naturally, those who apply are gifted students with a strong passion for science and engineering and very high GPAs.

Ultimately, the admission team is seeking kids who can reach their fullest potential at IMSA in a way that they wouldn’t at their home schools.

“That can be the student who is coming in with the perfect SAT scores and is looking for a new challenge. Or it could be the student who has run out of math classes their freshman year of high school because they’re from a very urban district or a very rural district, where they’ve just accelerated past what the school is able to offer. We talk a lot about the ‘excellence gap,’ and trying to help students when teachers, due to scarce resources, are teaching to the bottom of the class. How do we help those at the top of the class continue to excel and move forward like Malik and Kendell?” said Dr. Jeff Margolis, vice president of external engagement and an IMSA alum. 

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