Phelps High School students study mitosis during the after-school program. Three D.C. high schools, including Phelps High School, are getting more access to science, technology, engineering and math programs through a new program. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

While graduation rates are on the rise in D.C. public high schools, many students who go on to college find that they face a significant academic deficit: They are forced to take remedial math.

But the D.C. College Access Program wants to change that. The nonprofit organization is testing a privately funded after-school program focused on improving achievement in math and science high school courses so that once students get to college, they do not have to enroll in costly courses that do not count toward a degree.

“We know students often develop this anxiety in math and science. They shut themselves down because they decide ‘I am not good at that,’ ” said DC-CAP President Argelia Rodriguez. “The idea is to turn that notion around, so we can instill in every single student that they have ability to achieve in science and mathematics.”

Graduation rates in the city’s traditional public and public charter high schools have risen from 59 percent in 2011 to 69 percent in 2016. But data collected by DC-CAP from a sample of its students suggests that a large share of public high school graduates end up needing remedial math.

Colleges often require students with weak academic records to take remedial courses to help them catch up to classmates. Experts say students end up paying more for tuition and fees because remedial courses can delay them from graduating on time.

A study released last April by Education Reform Now, a think tank, showed that 1 in 4 students have to enroll in remedial classes their first year of college, costing families nearly $1.5 billion.

With funding from Boeing, DC-CAP has opened science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) “ready centers” at three high schools. There, tutors help freshmen with math and science homework and use games and other activities to review challenging concepts such as systems of equations.

At least two days a week, Dawnye Murchison, a 14-year-old freshman at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, spends time after school reviewing algebra and biology with classmates. Murchison wants to go to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and is interested in becoming a doctor.

First she will need to remember how mitosis works.

Recently Murchison and nine other students, led by several tutors, worked through the stages of the cell-division process. The students had to explain each phase in the process and draw it out on their desks using dry-erase markers.

The STEM center has helped Murchison understand what her science teacher is explaining in class. Murchison said she likes that things can get competitive in the after-school program.

“We get to do math contests to see who can answer the questions the fastest, and we have a contest on who can draw the animal and plant cell the fastest,” she said.

Shayla Stafford, the instructional coach at Phelps, said D.C. Public Schools adopted a more rigorous math curriculum this school year, and the pace of the instruction makes it hard for students to catch up if they don’t understand something. She said the STEM center helps keep them on track.

“I am really grateful that the program is here and the students are definitely excited about going to STEM, so much so that I can’t get them to come to their reading program,” Stafford said.

Rodriguez said that DC-CAP plans to add other incentives for the students, such as scholarship money for getting A’s in math and science courses, and will begin offering the program to sophomores next school year.

The organization also wants to expand the program to three additional schools by the 2018-19 school year. In addition to Phelps, DC-CAP has STEM centers at Columbia Heights Educational Campus and Washington Mathematics Science and Technology Public Charter High School.

“We are in a city that offers all this opportunity, and then we have our students who are not quite ready to take advantage of it, so the idea is to close that gap so that when they do get out of college they can go out and get good jobs,” Rodriguez said. “If we can prove that this works in D.C., it can be replicable in any urban school system in the country.”