Graduating senior helped pave the way for inner-city students at Case Western Reserve

Taneisha Deans pushed and dug and climbed to success at a school she was unprepared for, and quietly cut a path for other inner-city scholars.

On her first day in physics 101 at Case Western Reserve University, she realized she’d never even seen the math she needed for the course. She quickly learned she didn’t have the basics required for much of her course load.

Deans struggled mightily.

She was told by one professor maybe she ought to transfer to a trade school. During her first two years, she lost scholarships because of poor grades.

How could this be for a former honors student at Glenville High School, who took advanced courses and earned her associate’s degree during her junior and senior years there?

“Cleveland schools don’t have the money for the math and science courses you need for this school,” Deans said.

She went to her mentor, David Schiraldi, chair of the Department of Macromolecular Sciences and Engineering.

“Someone told Taneisha she would not make it as an engineer. I was shocked,” Schiraldi said. “She was angry and with tears in her eyes said something like ‘yes, I will make it, and I will get a PhD.’

“You don’t stand in the way of such a student; you coach and remove roadblocks and bring in resources to help such a person.”

Schiraldi knew firsthand Deans’ capabilities in the lab and her desire to find answers. She was an author on a published research paper at age 18.

Two years earlier, Schiraldi had made Deans the first polymer envoy of the university’s Center for Layered Polymeric Systems. The envoy program reaches out to promising Cleveland high schoolers to teach them how to do scientific research, write science papers and make presentations after school and in the summers during their junior and senior years.

But now, Deans knew that wasn’t enough. She went to the Educational Services for Students office to learn test-taking and time-management strategies.

Schiraldi gave her a study table next to his office assistant, saw her daily and they worked together weekly. Despite this, and studying 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. seven days a week, Deans’ grades continued to falter.

Her scholarships from outside the university were withdrawn because she failed to maintain the grade-point average they required. Deans comes from a family of 11. Her parents couldn‘t afford to pay for college. She took out loans so she could stay in school.

Still having troubles, she was finally diagnosed with a learning disability in March 2010.

“I was fine in math, but in reading and comprehension, I didn’t have the uptake you need in college,” she said. “They said that maybe I should reconsider engineering. But I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything but engineering.”

Deans proved herself in her final two years as a macromolecular sciences and engineering major. She’s co-authored another research paper and graduates in May—to begin studying for her PhD. She’ll be working with Schiraldi’s research group.

“This is the kid with the greatest will to succeed and the biggest heart of any CWRU student I have met in 10 years,” Schiraldi said.

As a result of Deans’ experience, Schiraldi’s department expanded the envoy program to three years, from two, and put an emphasis on teaching the basics needed for hardcore science, math and engineering in college.

He has submitted a grant to the National Science Foundation to build a STEM academy that would operate in the afternoons and weekends solely to teach 9th and 10th graders in Cleveland Municipal School District the math, science and communication skills needed to be effective freshmen at top universities.

The early intervention would enable students to take advanced and AP physics, chemistry and math similar to the courses in highly rated high schools. Schiraldi hopes the academy would become a model for other research universities in urban settings, and drastically increase the number of under-represented students from inner cities entering STEM fields.

“Taneisha taught us what is needed,” Schiraldi said. “We don’t want to make future students have to pay such a price for their education.”