When math skills add up. Project Seed gives minority students a boost

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The problem on the blackboard appeared to be a difficult one, even for someone who had completed college and a master's degree and spent 15 years in a professional career. It read:

But the students in the classroom attacked it with fervor. These were not college students or even advanced mathematics students in high school. They were black and Hispanic sixth-graders in a Dallas elementary school that draws its students from some of the city's most impoverished areas.

They were part of Project Seed, a program that is bringing advanced mathematics to the city's poor, minority students to try to break the cycle of ignorance by proving to them that they can learn complicated things.

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The students were nine weeks into the Project Seed program - some 36 class sessions - but all of them seemed to understand the line of thinking the teacher was taking in what amounted to pre-calculus information.

Thales Georgiou, a mathematician who holds a master's degree, put the sigma on the blackboard. ``I need an index for this summation.'' Hands went up. One student said, ``Alpha.'' ``Good,'' Mr. Georgiou said. ``I need a lower limit.'' More hands. ``One,'' offered another student.

As they worked their way through the problem, Georgiou called on every student who had a hand raised, and made a mental note of those who did not appear to understand. He made sure they were drawn into the discussion.

When a student gave an answer, he would say, ``Who agrees?'' and every student who agreed would raise both hands. ``Who disagrees?'' Those students would cross their hands in front of themselves. Using the Socratic method, Georgiou asked question after question as he jumped from the blackboard on one side of the room to one on the other.

``And what's the answer?'' he asked. ``Stacy.'' Stacy replied, ``Three-quarters.'' ``Who agrees with Stacy?'' Most of the students raised both hands. ``Now why is that answer correct?'' Georgio asked, and the students launched into a discussion.

Project Seed began 20 years ago in Berkeley, Calif. Before federal funds for its support were withdrawn in 1981, the program was used in as many as 17 school systems in 12 states, and employed more than 200 teachers. Now it survives in five school systems - three in the San Francisco Bay area, one in Portland, Ore., and in Dallas - where public schools are willing to pay the full cost. Dallas has the largest program, employing 28 of the 60 teachers still involved in the project.

Spurred by Dallas-based Texas Instruments Corporation, which paid for a demonstration project and has subsidized volunteer teachers from its work force, the Dallas school system has contracted with Project Seed to provide highly motivated and trained mathematicians to teach in schools with high percentages of poor, minority students.

Project Seed is based on the premise that minority students can do as well as whites - if they are reached soon enough. Mathematics has no racial connotation or language barrier, yet those who succeed in it are held in awe by others. If a student feels good about himself, the premise goes, he will succeed in other areas.

``Math is the great equalizer,'' says Hamid Ebrahami, director of Dallas's Project Seed. ``Once the students have the self-concept that they can succeed in math, they become successful in the other courses.''

Learning math is really secondary to the goal of Project Seed, he says. The real success comes when the student breaks out of his shell and begins participating in his own education. A student sees not only that he can learn, but can enjoy learning complicated things, Ebrahami contends. That gives him motivation in other classes.

``What I like about Project Seed is that it requires the students to participate in the production of the knowledge they have; to organize and think the way the teachers think,'' says Asa Hilliard, a Georgia State University professor who specializes in minority education.

Joy Barnhart, the principal of the first elementary school in Dallas to get Project Seed, is enthusiastic about the results. ``The students who had Project Seed always scored higher on the achievement tests than any other group,'' she says. ``They were able to transfer the concepts they learned there to solving problems they were never exposed to before. The kids leaving this program could compete with the highest socio-economic group in thinking.''

Nationwide studies done on Project Seed students, who came from normally low-achieving backgrounds, show that their mathematical ability advanced in one school year by an amount equal to what an average student will learn in 25 months.

And not just the students are learning. Regular teachers watch the Project Seed classes and get ideas on how to motivate students. For the Project Seed teachers, especially the black ones, the work inspires nearly missionary zeal. Some said they gave up higher-paying jobs in industry because Project Seed provided a better challenge, and they could see that their work was producing good results.

``When I was a child, several teachers told me I could not perform mathematics,'' says Sandra Jones, a black Project Seed teacher. ``But I was a rebel and I decided I could master the subject. Now I want to create a new generation that can stand up and aggressively compete.''

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