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Math Achievement Adds Up: Catholic High School Gets $1 Million Pledge From NBA Legend Charles Barkley

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 15: Charles Barkley attends the Warner Bros. Discovery Upfront 2024 on May 15, 2024 in New York City. (Photo:Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Discovery)

WASHINGTON — When a math teacher at St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic girls school in New Orleans, put a monetary incentive on a math challenge, little did she know just how much it would pay off.

Two seniors at the time, Calcea Johnson and Ne’Kiya Jackson, solved the extra challenge last year and the attention from it keeps coming. Just this past month, NBA legend Charles Barkley pledged to donate $1 million to the school after seeing a story about the students’ math feats on a recent CBS “60 Minutes” segment.

The students made local and international news by using trigonometry to provide a new proof for the ancient Pythagorean theorem — the mathematical theory many know by its definition: a2 + b2 = c2. The 2,000-year-old theorem basically means that the sum of two shorter sides of a triangle equals its longer side — but proving this by use of trigonometry takes it to a whole other, never-been-done before level.

After the students presented their proofs at an American Mathematical Society conference in Atlanta in March 2023, news of their accomplishment went viral.

As Johnson put it in the “60 Minutes” interview that aired May 5, the reaction was insane and unexpected.

The students got a shoutout on social media from first lady Michelle Obama, a commendation from the governor of Louisiana ,and keys to the city of New Orleans.

When CBS reporter Bill Whitaker asked the young women, who were just finishing their freshman year of college — Johnson at Louisiana State University and Jackson at Xavier University of Louisiana — why people were so impressed with their work, they didn’t have to do much figuring.

Jackson said it was “probably because we’re African American … and we’re also women.”

“Oh, and our age. Of course, our ages probably played a big part,” she added, before pointing out that she would rather have had their accomplishment celebrated for what it is: “a great mathematical achievement.” 

But it is still being celebrated because after the program aired, Barkley made his $1 million pledge to the school, telling the Birmingham News he was captivated by their achievement.

“These beautiful Black women, man, they’re just the high achievers,” Barkley said. “A lot is demanded of everybody at the school — high excellence. And these two Black women did something in mathematics that was just incredible. It just inspired me,” he said.

St. Mary’s Principal Pamela Rogers told the Clarion Herald, archdiocesan newspaper of New Orleans, on May 14 that she had not yet officially heard from Barkley but said she was excited by the prospect of the huge donation.

“We still haven’t gotten the call, but we feel comfortable that it’s going to happen,” Rogers said. “We don’t know about any of the parameters of the donation — if it’s a pledge over a certain amount of time.”

She pointed out that Johnson, who was St. Mary’s valedictorian in 2023, is majoring in environmental engineering at LSU and Jackson, who got a full scholarship to Xavier University of Louisiana, is majoring in pharmacy.

“They’re very humble girls,” Rogers said.

They primarily give credit to their K-12 school, founded in 1867 by the Sisters of the Holy Family, an African American congregation whose founder is Venerable Henriette DeLille.

In the “60 Minutes” segment that is linked on the school’s website, Rogers said that for the past 17 years, the school has had a 100% graduation rate and college acceptance rate. 

“Our students can do anything, and that’s what we tell them,” she said.