Do the Math 

For Charlie McVean, it's payback time.

Commodities trader Charlie McVean is at a point in his life where he has made a very nice living and has enough of a personal fortune to make some serious gifts.

A graduate of East High School and Vanderbilt University, McVean (pictured, seated) has contributed to both institutions. But two years ago he decided to rewrite the book on support for public secondary education. Since then, his Greater East High Foundation has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a substantial chunk of it to the students themselves.

The 1961 East High grad was a self-described bad boy -- smart but impatient, to put it nicely. He went on to study economics at Vandy and make a fortune in commodities through his company, McVean Trading. His original idea was that the East High Foundation would raise money from several graduates, but after a false start or two he decided it would be better if the program established itself first. So he took over all the funding, including hiring four math resource people, one of whom is a former East High math teacher, Grahamwood Elementary School principal Margaret Taylor.

The nut of the program is students helping other students, with cash incentives provided by McVean, but only for proven performance. Several times a year he comes to East and personally greets and rewards the student tutors and their charges.

Nothing against pro sports, but McVean says he got tired of seeing busloads of kids hauled off to ballgames for a free evening then brought back home to the same old same old. And when he read an article this fall about free-spending Vanderbilt chancellor Gordon Gee (annual compensation: $1.4 million) in The Wall Street Journal, his thoughts crystallized.

"According to the art or science of economics, an efficient system should balance the marginal rates of return of alternative investments," he says. "Does the 1,000th million contributed to an elite university create more value to society than the first million efficiently deployed into a downtrodden public high school?"

There are 30 tutors and 70 "scholars." The tutors are current East upperclassmen or recent graduates who are paid $10 an hour. The scholars are 8th and 9th graders who, as McVean's onsite assistant Bill Sehnert (pictured, standing) says, commit to "abide by the rules, show a little self-discipline, stick in their shirts, don't get thrown out of school, and come in for tutoring four days a week plus Saturday morning."

Each scholar and a parent must sign a no-excuses contract. If you have any Ds or Fs you don't get any incentives. If you do well you can make $25 to $100 each six weeks.

"Their grades are going up," says Sehnert. "Some people say that's chasing a dollar, but I guess that is what we do in America to some extent. The purpose is to get them all moving in the direction where they're self-starters, and we're not there yet."

Ironically, Vanderbilt's sister institution, Peabody College, just received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study the influence of financial bonuses to teachers based on student achievement. McVean's approach, characteristically, is more direct.

In an algebra classroom at East, as many as four adults, including the regular classroom teacher, work with 20 to 25 students. Those are considerably better odds than most algebra teachers enjoy. But McVean's point is that the odds have been stacked against these kids for years, and it's payback time. And in the after-school tutoring sessions in the school library, the student tutors take over. Until you've seen a roomful of high school students breaking up into teams, proudly showing off their report cards, and standing on tables to chant algebra cheers before a "math bowl," don't knock it.

McVean and Sehnert hope to expand the concept to other Memphis City Schools with wealthy alumni, but for now they're wary of raising false expectations.

"They're learning some manners and learning some math," Sehnert says.

And maybe learning what it means to give back to your old school.

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