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The next civil right: success in math

Teens hit the road to preach the power of numbers

By Amelia Newcomb Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 2001


What's happening at the Rivers School on this sunny South Carolina morning has to be one of the more unusual civil rights initiatives in the United States.

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Before the first bell rings, a bus pulls up to the front of an imposing brick edifice in a low-income neighborhood of Charleston. Its occupants, about three dozen African-American students from Jackson, Miss., pour out and swing into the auditorium. Within a few short minutes, they have a roomful of restive middle-schoolers swaying and singing - rapping, actually - about the most unhip of subjects: math.

"God split the numbers down to prime!

But he never said that you couldn't rhyme 'em!

Now YPP, we thinks to zap 'em!

But truth be told, we likes to rap 'em!"

From his perch at the side of the room, Bob Moses, who initiated this boisterous effort, watches with authoritative serenity. For two decades, African-American children's access to math education has consumed his attention. To this soft-spoken veteran of the civil rights movement, the demands of a high-tech age make math literacy as much an issue today as voting was in the Jim Crow South a half century ago.

The result is the Algebra Project, an effort he started in the 1980s to push a college-preparatory math program for low-income students, particularly minorities. The initiative is organized around lessons he learned almost 40 years ago, when he left his post as a teacher in New York to take part in the dramatic birth of the voting-rights movement in Mississippi. The only difference is that instead of lifting a generation through access to the ballot, Dr. Moses is now using his grass-roots expertise to give young people a seat in the New Economy - through integers and investigation.

"The [educational] system has been set up to keep low-income minorities out," says Moses, who holds a PhD in math from Harvard University. "If we can figure out how to get children to make the system work for them, this will change the system in ways we may not understand now."

This week, for the Mississippi students, that means giving up spring break to travel hundreds of miles by bus across the South, preaching the math gospel. The teens are part of the Young People's Project (YPP), run by Moses' son Omo. It evolved within the Algebra Project and, at times, acts as a sort of roadshow. Members see themselves as math-literacy workers and seek to demystify the science of numbers, in this case through a blend of rap, civil rights history, and games.

"When you combine music and math, they're learning from it and doing something they like at the same time," says Jessie Sims, a ninth-grader who is part of YPP and an aspiring rapper.

At the root of Moses' initiatives is a simple goal: motivate often-marginalized students to embrace math and encourage their peers to do the same. Moses, who chronicles his efforts in "Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights" (Beacon Press), hopes systemic change will flow outward as the needs of those historically at the bottom are addressed.

It's perhaps appropriate that Moses has chosen math to try to inspire a new generation. His focus is as much citizenship as equations, and math study often spurs kids to excel in many pursuits. Too, minorities are not well represented in the field at a time when emphasis on math instruction is growing nationwide, including a move to start algebra in earlier grades.

Indeed, according to a report of the US Department of Education, 83 percent of students who took algebra I and geometry went on to college, versus 36 percent of those who did not. A study by Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., which looked at the Algebra Project's impact in that city, found that a significantly higher percentage of Algebra Project students enrolled in college-prep math courses in high school than did their peers citywide.