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Opening life’s doors with math

Let’s bury the myth that struggling kids just don’t want to try.

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of seeing a grassroots movement in the making. Young men and women, under the spiritual and practical leadership of civil rights veteran Robert Moses, are working to help their peers take ownership of their education and overcome the obstacles that face so many students. And they are doing it with math.

The organizations sponsoring this community discussion included Moses’ Algebra Project, which seeks to build math literacy among at-risk students as a way of opening up doors and, along with them, hope. A spin-off of the Algebra Project, the Young People’s Project, was created by the next generation of civil rights activists. They train college students who in turn train high school students to mentor middle school students in math, and to keep them engaged in their own education. As with the Algebra Project, math is seen as a gateway to opportunity in our society. In the case of the YPP, the benefits seem to flow to the mentors as much as to those they work with.

Technically, the event and panel discussion were organized as a follow-on to Moses’ initiative to guarantee a quality education as a constitutional right. But such a right requires a dialog on what constitutes a quality education. That was the real focus of the program, held today, Martin Luther King’s actual birthday, at Washtenaw Community College.

What took me most by surprise was not the topics of discussion, or even the ideas being proposed, but rather the intelligent, articulate and determined young people who are working on the ground where our educational system faces its deepest challenges. Today, I met a young woman, a high school senior in Detroit, who said matter-of-factly that she had intended to drop out just a year or two ago but now works to convince younger students to stay in school and make something of the opportunity rather than marking time. Another Detroit-area senior, when asked about her most “dis-empowering” educational experience, said she couldn’t think of one: with a single parent and a younger sibling, she has no choice but to be strong and effective every day. I met a young man from Chicago, who, having been one of the high school students working with at-risk middle schoolers, now wants to broaden his work and become an effective teacher. And I met an extraordinary young woman from Ypsilanti Township, who has helped keep alive a mentoring program in Lincoln Schools despite the loss of their entire funding source. While most of these students were “Black or Brown,” that isn’t really the point. These are young people working hard to make real the promise of education to children who may have lost faith in that promise.

Perhaps most encouraging, I met and listened to a group of young organizers from YPP headquarters in Chicago, along with the college students and graduates they have trained to oversee their Michigan programs. Where one might have expected bluster, I saw thoughtful and articulate intelligence. Where one might have expected lack of focus, I saw competence, skill and determination. Perhaps most importantly, what I saw was an inclusive effort to build a movement rather than the politics of factions. Even a middle-aged white male such as this author was made welcome and taken seriously.

The discussion of what constitutes a quality education would not surprise most people who follow education, though it did focus less on assessing mastery than on finding multiple ways to ensure all students have a shot at success. But everyone participating in the “world café” discussion had something to learn, perhaps the older “experts” most of all. What was clear that change cannot happen without sustained, on-the-ground effort. Systemic-level changes may be helpful, if they are implemented correctly. But the real work must be done in the classroom, in the hallway, and after school.

Rather than dispensing platitudes, the YPP model works by making math fun for students, and providing role models who look a lot like the kids they are helping. As Dr. Moses argues, competency in algebra-level math can be the key to open doors to more advanced coursework and the first step to many technical and scientific professions. And it is precisely in middle school, where YPP is active, that many previously successful students begin to see their academic trajectory suffer. The physical, emotional and social changes that happen between ages 11 and 14 make the transition from primary school even more tenuous. Wise efforts to keep girls interested in science and math, and to keep at-risk kids engaged in school, focus on these middle years. It has little to do with native ability, and a great deal to do with what kids want and expect from the future.

There were no magic solutions offered, but no platitudes either. Some were frustrated with the current state of urban public schools, but most were simply determined to work to change that. One kid at a time.

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