By Joe Rodriguez

jrodriguez@mercurynews.com

SAN JOSE--A summer camp born in East San Jose 25 years ago has brought thousands of students from overwhelmed schools and poor neighborhoods up to speed in basic math and even to the heights of algebra and calculus. But on its silver anniversary, the much acclaimed Jose Valdes Math Institute finds itself struggling for survival.

"I never thought about getting to 25 years," said Josie Gutierrez, an original supporter who has returned to help resurrect the math camp. "When we started we were just trying to get more kids into math as a way to get them into college." Enrollment and funding have plunged. While newer summer programs in math and other subjects tapped into Silicon Valley's deep pockets, the Valdes program's steady funding stream dried up and the institute almost went under a few years ago.

"We have to change our strategy from now on," Gutierrez said, "that's for sure."

It all started with the late Jose Valdes, who was teaching math at Andrew Hill High in the late 1980s. The Cuban expatriate grew frustrated with the East Side school's high drop out rate and the low number of Latino students in advanced math classes. Valdes also chafed at the low number of them going on to four-year colleges, let alone careers in computer engineering or science.

The charismatic Valdes won a $2 million, 10-year grant from the Packard Foundation and designed a rigorous program -- six hours a day with two hours of homework each night, for seven weeks each summer. He recruited the best math teachers from minority schools and gave them enough assistants to give students lots of personal attention.

The idea then, as now, was to give kids one year's worth of math in one summer, and to send them back to school in the fall not just up to grade level but infinitely more comfortable with math and ahead of their classmates. Valdes passed away in 1991, but imbued with his spirit, his program continued to prosper for many years.

Grateful districts

At its peak in 2004, Valdes taught 1,636 students from fourth to 11th grades basic math to calculus and math analysis each summer on seven high school and college campuses, including Stanford and San Jose State universities.

The math camp's primary funders became school districts that knew they couldn't devote so much time to one subject. But school districts, beleaguered by state funding cuts during the Great Recession, drastically reduced support for Valdes starting in 2005. The Valdes program found itself with no endowment to lean on and without a fundraising machine up to the task.

As a result, the program's budget for summer 2013 dropped to $391,000 and enrollment fell to 500 students. It might have to dip into its reserves.

By contrast, the Silicon Valley Educational Foundation already had a rich stable of eager tech companies and philanthropists -- and political friends like U.S. Rep. Mike Honda and former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales -- when it launched its Stepping Up to Algebra summer program six years ago.

Known as SUTA, the camp teaches algebra to eighth graders in hopes of inspiring kids to seek careers in the so-called STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. With $500,000 in hand for this summer, SUTA enrolled 1,100 students from 18 school districts across Santa Clara County.

Meanwhile, the Valdes program stuck to its broader mission as it went on to train more than 20,000 students.

"I'm not trying to make them into engineers or scientists," said Julio Pardo, the Valdes program director. "I want them to go to college. I don't want any college to tell them they can't get in because they don't know math."

The program's silver anniversary might have started in worse shape if an anonymous donor had not contributed $125,000 to pay for the 164-student Valdes camp at Stanford. He said he had never heard of the Valdes program but contributed because the target students were low-income, Latino and African-American children from East Palo Alto who were falling behind in math.

"There are enormous challenges there," the donor said. "These kids need it more."

Whizzes at quizzes

Sitting in a cool hallway at San Jose City College, two young and very typical Valdes student took a break just before their midterm examination.

Eduardo Orozco Barragan, 13, said he was a D student in just about every subject at school and faced a hard choice this summer.

"My mother said I could either go to Mexico or summer school," he said. "I said 'I'll go to summer school.' " Midway through the program, Eduardo said he's earning A grades on quizzes and tests and races to finish them before anyone else.

Angel Deanna Rodriguez, also 13, said she was a B student in math and studied only enough to pass, not to excel at the subject. She rebelled against the thought of spending her summer in pre-algebra, but now she races with Eduardo to finish first on assignments.

"Now I don't want it end," he said.

Meanwhile, Gutierrez, Pardo and a new board of directors have their work cut out for them as another threat looms. California recently abandoned its mandate that students study algebra by eighth grade, which might reduce the demand for summer math programs. But Pardo and Gutierrez argued that Valdes started long before the mandate was adopted in 2008, and should survive because success in algebra is still a ticket to college.

"We need algebra more than ever," Gutierrez said.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.

Want to help?
For information about how to donate time or money to the Jose Valdes Math Institute, go to valdesmath.org/donate. Make checks payable to Jose Valdes Foundation and mail to Jose Valdes Math Foundation, 4848 San Felipe Road #150-213, San Jose, CA 95135.