Sitting on the floor in Crocs and a baseball cap, Bill Cosby offered a gym full of laughing kids a math lesson on the difference between a “skazillion” and a “manillion.” His efforts just might help them get an education at Southern Connecticut State University.
Cosby, the renowned comedian, gave his lesson on Thursday afternoon at Beecher Magnet School in Beaver Hills. He was there to lend support to a new SCSU initiative, called Southern Academy. The program will provide intensive summer academic instruction to 25 randomly selected fourth-graders. The group, which will eventually expand to 200 students, will then be tracked and supported through middle and high school, and will have the opportunity to earn partial or full scholarships to Southern.
Thursday’s visit was Cosby’s third appearance in New Haven in seven months, a result of the actor’s relationship with SCSU President Stanley Battle. The two have been working to promote academic achievement in New Haven. In November, the pair visited King-Robinson school and Cosby toured Newhallville. In March, he came back to visit Lincoln-Bassett, shortly before he and Battle appeared on the Today show in April.
Thursday’s visit was billed as a “rally for education ... part of a joint effort by Cosby and Southern to show urban youth that college is an attainable dream.”
In practice, Cosby’s appearance consisted of extended floor-level riffing with children from various grades, featuring patented Cosby silliness that entertained a gym full of hundreds of students.
But first Battle said a few words about Southern Academy. At a podium in the center of the gym, he spoke of high expectations and told students they would “interface” with the university and maybe earn a chance to attend.
Battle later spoke in more detail about Southern Academy. The program will begin at the three schools Cosby has visited: Beecher, King-Robinson, and Lincoln Bassett. From those schools, 25 rising fourth-graders will be randomly selected to participate in six weeks of intensive summer classes at Southern, starting in July. Each student will be given a laptop to use and their parents will be asked to sign commitment contracts. The initiative will be free of charge for participants, paid for by the university. As he lines up corporate sponsors, the program will expand to include 200 students, Battle said.
Southern Academy is to extend beyond just the summer. The students will stay in the program all the way through 12th grade. They’ll have academic support, activities, and field trips during the school year. When they graduate, the could earn partial or full scholarships to attend Southern, Battle said.
“We’re just starting at a point where we need to address the achievement gap as early as we possibly can,” Battle said.
He said random selection will ensure a cross-section of students, not simply the “best and the brightest.”
“I wish we could serve every child in New Haven. We don’t have the resources and staff,” he said. “This does not preclude or stop anyone else from doing what we’re doing.”
Cosby’s role is as an “ambassador and motivator,” Battle said. “His presence. His visibility. This is a mega-star.”
Cosby Does The Math
When Cosby took the cordless mic Thursday afternoon, he walked past the podium and headed straight to the front row of students, kindergartners. He knelt on the floor, called up Sarei Adgar, seemingly at random, and gave her a hug. He quizzed the 6-year-old on her ABCs and her best friend Mayssam Mandhoug on counting.
From there, Cosby moved on to the third grade. He posed a math problem to Amanda Schmidt (at right in photo), visiting the school from East Haven. “If a man had a skazillion beans and 3 skazillion biscuits, then what is my dog’s name?”
“What?” Amanda said.
“You got it right!” Cosby said. “My dog’s name is What. Brilliant!”
Later, Cosby asked students to challenge him with math problems of their own.
“What is 18 times 10?” quizzed second-grader Annabel Obas.
“41!” Cosby shouted triumphantly, doing a little victory dance, still seated on the floor. His answer outraged the students, who were not mollified by further sums and products.
28 x 23?
2 x 20?
The final question, a tough one: 2 x 2?
Cosby asked for a hint before giving his final answer—“Two!”—eliciting a chorus of joyous disapproval.
“OK, I’m going to leave now and I want you to know I’ve had a lot of fun here,” Cosby said. He asked for a hand up and was mobbed by kindergartners. He emerged on his feet, Southern cap askew, doling out hugs all around as teachers and parents snapped pictures.