The next civil right: success in math

Teens hit the road to preach the power of numbers

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.

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.

"The most important thing the Algebra Project shows is that kids from all backgrounds can succeed in math," says Freeman Hrabowski, a mathematician and president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, who is African-American. "It bridges the culture of the child and the world of math. It's too rare to find people focusing on this."

In many respects, the 740 students here at the Rivers School represent the target group Moses is trying to reach. Economically, the school, which sits in a modest neighborhood across the street from a Food Lion, lies near the bottom of the scale. Some 92 percent of its largely African-American student body receive federally subsidized lunches, and many deal with violence on a regular basis.

Principal Benjamin Gadsden, a congenial man who has worked hard to stem problems of discipline and violence at the school, wants to see steady progress. Test scores went up last year, but they need to improve to meet changing state standards.

Mr. Gadsden has taken the Algebra Project to heart. "We can tell the kids that math is fun, but when you can put it into action, that promotes confidence - and the kids can compete with each other," he says.

Overall, the project reaches about 10,000 students at 28 sites around the country, the vast majority being in the South. The program's curriculum materials, which can be integrated with what schools already use, emphasize experiential and in-depth learning.

The cornerstone is a five-step process that helps kids make the often-difficult transition between what's familiar and the abstract language of math. Students take a trip, riding on a bus or walking through a neighborhood, and then construct a model of their travels. They write about the event in their own terms and learn to identify the numerical elements - the math - such as speed. They then construct a symbolic representation of the whole process.

Jacqueline Johnson, the Algebra Project liaison at Rivers, says it has changed how she teaches math - for one, she feels more able to reach a variety of children. "My use of terminology has changed, and I make real-world connections with the kids' environment," she says.

The YPP has arrived at Rivers this spring morning to reinforce many of the lessons of the Algebra Project.

Like the project, YPP doesn't target math stars. The kids who are now so actively trying to interest others in factors and polynomials wouldn't have been tagged automatically as math leaders, nor would their schools.

James Roach, a YPP student, was senior class president and is now a resident assistant at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss. "I got those titles because of the knowledge Mr. Moses gave me," he says quietly. "I thank him to this day." His father was murdered when he was in middle school, and before he joined the Algebra Project, he didn't care to get involved in much.

Moses worked hard to draw him out in class and gain his trust at Lanier High School in Jackson, where Moses travels from his home in Cambridge, Mass., each week to teach. Now James points to a new responsibility, one he shares with his peers: Each one, teach one.

At the front of Rivers's large hall, where handmade math posters are tacked up next to curls of paint peeling off the walls, Kevin Edmundson and Frankie Johnson ask everyone to stop fidgeting long enough to read a quote by civil rights worker Ella Baker. Then they pass the mike to ninth-grader Bertha Holden, who starts the rap.

The volume rises as a math "game" gets under way. Flanked by YPP facilitators, student teams begin to compete in an algebraic-like version of College Bowl. Each group takes a number, breaks it into prime factors, translates that into algebra form (two 2s become A2, for example), and comes up with an answer. Once judges sign off on those, kids use their answers to "walk the flag," a color-coded maze of sorts laid out on the floor.

The competition intensifies, and by the end the atmosphere is electrified. Some students are told to head out for their lunch break, but plead to stay.

That doesn't mean everything has gone smoothly. When lunchtime does arrive, the YPP students take time to review with Maisha Moses, Bob Moses' daughter, who trains teachers in using the Algebra Project. They agree that the raps have to be shorter, the transitions tighter. A break helps them get energized for the afternoon.

While the activities are successful at engaging the audience, they have also proven transforming for the students who have made the journey here from Mississippi.

Jessie, the aspiring rapper, likes sharing something that, for him, was literally life-altering. "I used to act real challenged," he says, chipping away at a hearty lunch from the nearby supermarket. "But I got smarter mentally and physically."

He pushes his chair back and continues earnestly. "I used to have a fear of success. Now, I can be smart and down to earth. YPP helps you focus and they change your whole vocabulary. It gave me a joy of helping people out."

The esprit de corps the group has formed while inspiring students across several states is palpable. They speak reverently, too, of Moses, who endured jailing and physical attacks in his efforts to help black people vote in Mississippi. "In the 1960s, he pushed his own generation," Bertha says. "Now, he pushes ours."

Yet for all their obvious authority, Moses and the other adult supervisors on the trip conduct themselves as guides more than directors. The idea is to get the kids to take responsibility - and to make demands. The program may be about math, but the subtext is more fundamental: Kids can shape their own destiny.

The Rivers School is hoping to tap more of the transforming power of math. Kids are already involved in setting up a YPP of their own, and 25 children will be trained this summer at a YPP camp.

Already, changes are evident, in students and in the community. Three years ago, a family math night attracted maybe six participants. This year, the YPP pulls in a standing-room-only crowd - something Gadsden attributes directly to the project.

The next morning, as the bus pulls out for Savannah, Ga., silence attests to the previous day's effort. For two hours, lulled by a driving rain, the kids doze. As they close in on Bartlett Middle School on the south side of Savannah, Maisha starts nudging them awake. Students drag slightly as they exit the bus.

They perk up almost instinctively, though, at the sign of another pool of potential converts - an expectant assembly of seventh- and eighth-graders. The kids start to sense they're going to nail this one. The prime-number rap begins. Moses, standing off to one side, is pleased.

"Since the kids started in Arkansas, there have been great improvements," he says. "As they've gone along, they've been figuring out how to run it."

Bartlett is the only school in Georgia to use the Algebra Project. The principal, Roy Davenport - himself a mathematician - brought it in because he, too, wants to prepare his students better in math.

Dolores Washington, an eighth-grade math teacher and former accountant, is confident of the project's ability to help kids. "It really helps students' reasoning," she says. "I have kids jumping out of their seats who wouldn't move before."

At this assembly, Bartlett students are showing their zest: They're jumping up on tables by the end of the program, waving answers. "I loved this group," says Calvin Cain, a YPP student. "I like the idea of rivalry with intelligence. It gets me hyped."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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