Planting SEEDs of hope

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

And what explains the sheer enjoyment the children exude in solving tricky equations with Greek letters in them? Don't most people kvetch about their algebra classes for most of their adult lives? Even talking Barbie dolls have been known to complain that "math is hard," while a Jimmy Buffett song is titled (and purposely misspelled) "Math Suks."

Baker wants to nip such fears in the bud and thinks he can do it by reaching kids while they're young and confident. A former corporate mathematician turned teacher, he visits Jeff Sughrue's afternoon class and three other classes four days a week to teach algebra and other higher-math concepts. His visits, which will continue nearly until summer break, are part of a long-running district-sponsored academic-enrichment program.

Again, it boggles the mind. After all, a large-scale effort kicked off in 1997 to improve reading at the Dallas Independent School District has not yet shown results, and the district is not known as a cauldron of innovation.

But it's really happening and has been for some time with apparent success -- albeit on a limited scale, a mere glimmer of its promise. Since 1982, Dallas has hosted Project SEED, a multi-city initiative born in the 1960s that seeks to improve math education for poor and minority children by using innovative techniques to teach the harder stuff young. About 6,000 Dallas elementary schoolchildren every year out of 100,000 across the district receive lively tutorials in algebra, calculus, analysis, and other facets of advanced math during regular school hours through the program. Citing research linking the program to higher levels of student achievement and increased enrollment in tougher courses, DISD Superintendent Bill Rojas has announced tentative plans to expand the $1.7 million program next year to serve about 10,000 students.

Is it the program's method or the extra resources that explains Project SEED's success? To some extent, this seems a chicken-and-egg argument, but it's evident that SEED instructors deploy techniques to engage children in learning math that are rare for American classrooms. The kids in Sughrue's class this afternoon are not classified as "gifted and talented." They are a regular, heterogeneous class of children not sliced and diced by ability labels. Directors of the Dallas-based Project SEED encourage teachers to allow many special-education children, the presumably "slow" learners, to be present in the room for SEED lessons since regular curricula often neglect their skills.

While Barbara Jordan in South Oak Cliff is one of many overcrowded schools in DISD -- 15 portable trailers sit outside, and the narrow hallways fill quickly between classes -- it's a well-kept building, and the children exude happiness and spirit. The same is true for their highly motivated instructors, who often gush with youthful, infectious enthusiasm when teaching kids tough math problems. Perhaps that's why the program constitutes a rare success for the beleaguered DISD.

Such effervescence was evident a few days later, when Baker and other math instructors gathered in a small office building Uptown to go over teaching strategies and instructional material.

Their session, held in an upstairs classroom, mimicked the scene in Sughrue's class -- on a taller scale. When SEED instructors leave the classrooms, they don't step out of character. Instructors even report making the hand signals in front of family members and friends before catching their slip-ups.

As Harold Bledsoe, a SEED instructor and the program's curriculum coordinator, leads his colleagues through calculus-style summation problems, the instructors, sitting in desks lined up in straight rows, behave as their young students do. They use the hand signs to signal agreement or disagreement, holding up fingers to show their answers, and rolling their arms to telegraph their support of their colleagues.

The diverse lot of teachers, who vary tremendously in age, race, sex, and ethnicity, make about the same annual salaries as Dallas public school teachers, who average $33,000. Despite their ability to easily obtain much higher-paying jobs in the private sector, they stay in the program because they believe they are making a difference and helping children.

The daily workshops allow SEED teachers to share ideas and help them learn math concepts inside out so they can follow any train of thought that free-flowing Socratic questioning may produce. After a bewildering math lesson that left a visitor feeling confused and empty-headed, Bledsoe and Glee allowed the SEED specialists, most of whom have advanced degrees in mathematics, science, or engineering, to recount their reasons why they signed up for the program.

Glee allows a visitor to call on "students" with raised hands, a strange prospect when the "students" range in age from late 20s to near retirement age.

Some of the instructors literally squirm in their seats, practically unable to wait for a turn to speak. Ann Meuret, who taught remedial math in San Antonio public schools, says she was amazed by SEED's willingness to teach advanced math to young students in troubled schools. "That was the exact opposite of what we were doing," she says. "I'd heard some of it in college in theory, but never saw it in practice."

She was also surprised by the depth of the children's curiosity and willingness to learn. "The kids go 'oooo' when they get it," she says.

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