'Pentagonal pyramids and other stuff' brighten futures in the Deep South

On the edge of this rural deep South town, where battered pickup trucks raise dusty plumes into sultry air and majestic pines put a pretty face on poverty, opportunity is knocking on Michael Gay's door.

Each morning this summer the nine-year-old waved goodbye to his mother, grandmother, and seven brothers and sisters and hitched a ride with a high-school friend or walked the several miles to the campus of historic Tuskegee Institute. There, a Ford Foundation-sponsored program has helped nurture his natural aptitude for mathematics.

''I built pentagonal pyramids and other stuff,'' says the bright-eyed fourth grader of his summer at college. ''All by myself.''

The national concern for improving science and math teaching in order to adequately prepare students for the jobs expected to bloom from a budding high-tech economy takes on added urgency here where the average yearly income is only slightly more than $5,000 a year.

State and community leaders, already concerned about the ability of local youngsters to break out of the cycle of poverty that clings fast to this region, see proper math and science instruction as crucial to moving into a better way of life.

The summer program that brought 140 students and 60 teachers from outlying areas to the Tuskegee campus to participate in specialized math and computer-science instruction and training was only one part of a comprehensive plan designed to upgrade science and math instruction in Macon County public schools.

The public-schools aspect of the program has so far met with remarkable success. ''In many of the schools we have cut the failure rate pretty much in half,'' says Dr. Ben A. Outland, interim superintendent of the Macon County Board of Education.

Indeed, achievement test scores for 11th graders have risen two full grade levels since the program started in 1981.

The only magic in the formula appears to be hard work and rigid structure. Before the program, teachers in the public schools devised their own formats for teaching math. Now there is a systemwide instructional program with standardized course outlines and tests.

The key, if there is one, say those who devised the program, is that the teachers no longer try to fit their teaching to the individual students. Instead , the individual student fits into the system; each is placed in the class that matches his or her progress, sometimes regardless of grade level.

By so doing, educators feel they can address the needs of not only gifted students but also average students and below-average students. In addition, each student has what is called a skills continuum sheet so that a teacher can tell exactly where the student stands at any given time.

''We can't afford to address the needs only of the gifted; we simply don't have the resources. And I'm not sure we would want to if we could, when we are seeing that we can include everybody without hurting anyone's progress,'' says Moses Clark, a math professor at Tuskegee who was instrumental in bringing the project to fruition.

The program in Tuskegee is one of seven sponsored by the Ford Foundation nationwide in which partnerships have been forged between higher education and secondary schools to combat the decline in quality of math and science instruction.

A Ford Foundation program in North Carolina linked Pembroke State University with public schools in Robeson County to assist Lumbe Indians in math and science instruction. Another program that allied the University of Mexico and a number of public schools in the Santa Fe area was aimed at large concentrations of underprivileged Hispanic students.

Despite the successes, the Ford Foundation is said to be reviewing renewal of the programs, due to possible federal involvement in funding such efforts. Several bills in Congress could provide money on a multibillion-dollar scale, far beyond what the Ford Foundation could offer.

As much as the numbers indicate the program here is a success, the new spirit it has instilled is palpable in Tuskegee's public schools. Standing in a hallway whose painted-flecked walls show many previous coats, Marilyn Jones, a teacher at Tuskegee Institute High School, describes the impact that two computers that were donated to the program are having:

''They're eating it up - literally! They'll skip lunch to work on the computer. We've discovered we've got a couple of real whizzes. Some of them even skip the bus after school or come early and con someone into opening the door.''

The students have advanced rapidly. Paula Ducker is an 11th grader at the high school. She participated in the summer program on the Tuskegee campus.

''Now I sometimes see my math teacher make mistakes on the board, but I don't always correct her,'' she says with a sheepish grin.

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