Equating math to opportunity

HER HAND covered in chalk dust, Venaisha Lawrence, 15, stands at the chalkboard in a cluttered classroom at City College.

It's 4 p.m. on a weekday, and Lawrence is flanked by two of her "clients," Kenneth Crump and Moriah Goodman, 11-year-old sixth-graders at the nearby Stadium School.


There's excitement in this cluster of three, one of several pairs and trios in the room. Kenneth has just made a breakthrough: He's solved an algebraic equation.

"I'm going to give you another using negatives so you'll remember what you just did," says Lawrence, a sophomore at City, as she picks up the chalk again.


This isn't your ordinary peer-tutoring program. It's called the Algebra Project. It's run by students four afternoons a week in eight schools around the city. And Lawrence is on the clock. She and 120 other tutors, all high school and college students, earn $10 an hour as they introduce middle and high school students to the wonders of algebra.

Yes, algebra, a subject you may have found less than stimulating in middle school.

But algebra can be entrancing if it's taught right, says Robert Moses, who founded the project 22 years ago in Cambridge, Mass., and has seen it expand to 40,000 kids in 28 urban and rural districts.

And algebra is the gateway to higher mathematics. Mastering it opens the way to today's economy. Failing to master it consigns students to what Moses calls "sharecropper education." In Moses' equation, math literacy is a civil right.

As a young civil rights worker in the 1960s, Moses made his name persuading Mississippi sharecroppers to register to vote. Four decades later, his message is altered to fit the times. Sharecroppers are gone, Moses writes in his autobiography, Radical Equations, but "we are growing similar serflike communities within our cities today. ... Economic access, taking advantage of new technologies and economic opportunity, demands as much effort as political struggle required in the 1960s."

Chantel Morant, 15, read Radical Equations before she became involved with the Algebra Project, first as a client, then as a tutor, now as head of the project's advocacy committee.

"Advocacy goes hand-in-hand with everything else we do," says the City College sophomore. "It's a necessary element of the project."

She and many of the others are tutors by day, activists by night. Recently, they raised eyebrows when they proposed at a school board meeting that the system temporarily divert state and federal payroll tax withholdings to cover the yawning city school deficit.


You could hear the condescension. Refusing to pay taxes is against the law, and here were kids not old enough to vote suggesting just that. The shame!

But given the damage done to children in the system, given damages about to be inflicted with further cuts, "who's breaking the law that requires an adequate education?" asks Morant. If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reneges on his promise to fully fund the Thornton Commission recommendations, isn't that a kind of lawbreaking, too, since Thornton's intent was to equalize school funding and head off a constitutional lawsuit?

"This proposal is a chance for them to rehabilitate themselves," Morant says of school officials and politicians.

Much of the Algebra Project's funding comes from an $80,000 contract with the city school system. On Wednesday, payday for the tutors, no one was surprised to learn that the city is two months, or $20,000, in arrears. A $9,000 payroll must be covered next month.

These kids are getting a real-life lesson in mathematics.

Setting record straight on teacher pay, holidays


I erred Jan. 18 in saying that city teachers enjoy 30 days of "paid closings and holidays," some of which could be used as furlough days.

In fact, as I was informed by numerous angry readers, teachers in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland aren't paid for holidays or vacation breaks. They're paid for 190 or 191 working days, 10 or 11 of which are set aside for staff development.

Of those who called and wrote, several expressed anger that some officials who caused the budget crisis are no longer with the system and haven't been held accountable for their bad decisions.

Typical was this reaction from Jacquelin A. Mason, a 33-year city teacher now at Robert Poole Middle School: "I am tired of shouldering the blame for leaders who do a poor job of listening to those who could help keep the system from overextending itself monetarily, and [of] being the scapegoat for the public."