Planting SEEDs of hope

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

Striking a note with the era's Civil Rights Movement, Johntz also theorized that teaching methods and language used successfully with white middle-class children constituted a stumbling block for inner-city minority kids. As a 1970 Newsweek write-up puts it: "[Johntz] reasoned that if language skills, with their forbidding overtones of white culture, were a stumbling block, then math, which is culturally neutral, might be the right place to start."

So abstract, conceptually oriented mathematics, he believed, was the way to go, rather than "culture-bound," verbally oriented math lessons. Likewise, SEED's current leaders also argue that higher-level math is the right topic for stimulating a desire to learn among minority youths, as it incorporates fewer of the cultural biases found in history, English, and other subjects.

Eventually, Johntz's experimental program spread to as many as 17 school systems in 12 states, reaching from Nome, Alaska, to New Haven, Connecticut, and employing more than 200 teachers. In the mid-'70s, Sen. Ted Kennedy introduced it to Congress by holding a demonstration lesson on the floor of the U.S. Senate, later winning federal funding specifically for the program.

But the program hit a rough patch in the early 1980s when President Ronald Reagan scotched much of its federal funding in 1981 as part of a larger shearing of government spending, causing the program to contract significantly and recede from public memory. By 1987, SEED survived only in the San Francisco Bay area; in Portland, Oregon; and in Dallas, where administrators would pay its full costs.

Today, however, the program is making a steady comeback in Dallas and six other chapters in Detroit, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Camden, New Jersey. Together, Glee says, the program's seven chapters reach 10,000 to 12,000 students, while Fort Worth and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, are weighing whether to sign up.

For the future, SEED wants to get back its federal funding, says Hamid Ebrahimi, but he admits prospects look dim for now, since Republicans in the GOP-majority Congress frown on the idea of enlarging the federal role in education. But Ebrahimi thinks SEED will grow anyhow and hopes it will expand to other cities in Texas. "We want to maintain the quality of the program," he says. "We've built it to a point we are now at a critical mass where we can build it much bigger than before."

Supporters praise Bill Rojas, who worked with Project SEED as leader of San Francisco schools, for continuing the program, realizing that a new chief could just as easily have put SEED's $1.7 million budget to other uses. "If it wasn't for him, the program wouldn't be here," Ebrahimi says. "There was no leadership, and we needed someone to come in and provide that."

Following the teachers' workshop, Glee and the visitor go to a nearby conference room to talk, but several SEED instructors crash the discussion to expound their love for the program. Somehow, a fast-paced math lesson on exponents starts right on the spot when instructor and local recruitment coordinator Kevin O'Neill, who teaches SEED classes to fifth-graders, grabs a felt-tip pen and begins writing on a nearby board. He writes:

64x 64x = 641

What exponents are represented by x? he asks. Remembering a long-lost math lesson to add exponents in a multiplication problem, the visitor guesses both numbers are multiplied by the 1/2 power. So O'Neill asks the visitor what 64 to the 1/2 power is.

Uncertain, the visitor makes a haphazard guess: "32," he says.

"Good deliberative effort," O'Neill says, allowing the visitor to think he's right for about half a minute. O'Neill then fills in the blanks of the problem so it reads "32 32 = 64." In a SEED class, he explains, the students would then immediately know that 32 times 32 doesn't equal 64 and cross their arms to signal the error. The visitor quickly realizes his faux pas and corrects himself: 64 to the 1/2 power equals eight, so therefore, "8 8 = 64."

Thus, O'Neill illustrates SEED's biggest feature separating it from conventional math instruction. Through the Socratic teaching style, the visitor who gave a wrong answer is allowed to work through the problem and arrive at the right answer -- and feel better about his math talents than if O'Neill merely dismissed him as wrong right off the bat.

"Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong, but I'm going to put my hand up," O'Neill explains. "You model to them that it's OK to conjecture. I can hardly say the word 'wrong.'"

What else are SEED instructors modeling for the kids? That it's OK to love learning, that education shouldn't be something done to children, as if force-feeding them vinegar. One can only imagine the result if Project SEED's spirit and vitality were infused into every subject taught in schools.

So the question is simple: When does Project SEED plan to shed the word "project" from its name and become an integral part of the educational system that reaches a far larger number of children, rather than an add-on component? Upstairs in SEED headquarters, Chet Baker responds to this question with a laugh.

"Are you prepared to write a check?" he asks.

What is going on here? Who is this Baker fellow, and why is he teaching algebra to third-grade students at a Dallas public school? Who let him in the building?

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