Planting SEEDs of hope

An innovative math program recalculates which students will succeed and which will fail at DISD

It's an early Tuesday afternoon at Barbara Jordan Elementary School in South Oak Cliff, and Chet Baker, a tall and cheerful visitor dressed in a dark gray suit, takes off his jacket and makes this straightforward inquiry to Jeff Sughrue's third-grade class: "What signal would you show if today is Tuesday?"

Piece of cake. All 20 children put their arms straight up in the air, as if signaling a touchdown, to indicate it's true.

Baker nods approval, then asks: "What signal would you show me if I told you today is January 15, 1892?" The children wave their arms as if signaling a baseball runner is safe, meaning it's false.

But Baker, who has an easygoing yet firm manner with the children, is just getting started. In fact, he and the young students are about to venture into territory where few third-grade classes dare to tread: the land of algebra, a zone usually restricted to teenagers.

Unbelievably, the kids are going to eat it up.

He puts the equation " = 15" on the board. What numbers, he asks, can (delta) and (omega) represent? One girl raises her hand to answer three and five. Baker writes those answers on the board. Another child offers the number five and the variable Ix, which in algebra is a fancy way of saying "one." With a felt-tipped marker, Baker writes:

5 Ix = 15

Immediately, the children begin rapidly crossing their arms in disapproval. Baker doesn't dismiss the girl's answer as wrong, but gently asks the class what Ix stands for. "One," they answer, so five times Ix equals five. Baker then calls on Mesha, another student who offers the number 15 and I+ as answers.

Again, about half of the children begin crossing their arms, so Baker asks Mesha to ask a classmate what she thinks. "My colleague, why do you disagree?" Mesha asks Samara, who sits on the other side of the room. (The children use special formalities to talk with one another in the program.)

"I-sub-plus," replies Samara, "acts like a zero." And she is right.

Huh? I-sub-what? In the back of the room, a 25-year-old writer falls behind the class of third-graders as his comprehension falters.

Baker's questions get harder. "What can I multiply three by to get Ix?" he asks. A student gives the answer of negative three. The kids wildly cross their arms. A student gives the correct answer of 1/3.

And so Chet Baker has taught the 9-year-old students of Jeff Sughrue's class how to determine a "multiplicative inverse." To reinforce the lesson, Baker writes this equation on the board: "1/15 __ = Juan".

The children scratch their heads for a moment. A boy with a name card on his desk that reads "Juan" looks similarly perplexed.

Sitting in back of the room, William Glee, a colleague of Baker's who also teaches advanced math, crosses his arms back and forth and chuckles. He's the only one who gets the joke. "You can't put Juan up there," says Glee. "Juan is a student!"

The children all laugh.Locally, SEED was introduced in 1982 to city schools at the urging of Texas Instruments executive Ralph Dosher Jr., who was distressed by the fact that more than 90 percent of graduates in Texas had not taken a math course past ninth grade. He allowed staffers of the Dallas-based company to take time off from work to teach SEED classes in some of Dallas' poorest schools.

Texas Instruments no longer supports SEED financially (once SEED was stabilized, the company moved on to other initiatives), but a handful of former TI staffers still work in the program. For their part, Dallas school officials say they are still committed to the program, which is Project SEED's largest chapter nationally. As part of his administration's "New Millennium" plans to improve classroom instruction, Superintendent Rojas wants to expand SEED to allow 10,278 students to participate.

Over the years, DISD's William Webster, deputy superintendent for evaluation and information systems under Rojas, has completed several major evaluations of the program. In 1992, his first study collected records from 10,890 students (SEED and non-SEED) between 1982 and 1991 at 11 Dallas elementary centers. Generally, the study found that the longer a student is enrolled in SEED, the better that student performed compared with non-SEED peers on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and pre-TAAS state tests. Follow-up studies by Webster in later years found that SEED students kept their test-score edge in math as well as reading even after leaving the program.

Moreover, they were more likely than non-SEEDlings to enroll in advanced mathematics classes in high school and less likely to repeat a grade (an event that increases a student's likelihood of dropping out).

Nationally, SEED was conceived in 1963, when William Johntz, a mathematician, psychologist, and high school teacher in Berkeley, California, decided to spend his lunch hour teaching advanced algebra to sixth-grade students at a nearby public school in a troubled urban area. His belief: Younger children needed challenges, rather than traditional, less-challenging remedial work, to have a shot at changing their fate.

Children were unlikely to do well on material they had already failed, he surmised, while kids in high school were "pretty well tracked in terms of what they are going to do" with their lives and could not be helped as easily. With funding from the University of California at Berkeley and the Berkeley School District, Johntz launched Project SEED with the hope of reaching young students and giving them a taste of success while they were still curious and not discouraged about their abilities. (The acronym SEED used to stand for Special Elementary Education for the Disadvantaged, but the wording was later dropped when the meaning of the word "special" changed during the 1970s to mean "disabled.")

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