Planting SEEDs of hope

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

Nearby is John Davis, a former engineer who worked for a Louisiana oil company but was downsized after a 20-year career. "I happen to be one of the fortunate ones who was let go," he says, becoming teary-eyed when he talks about his new job. "I had reached all of my goals in my career except one: to give back to the community," he says as other instructors roll their arms in support. "It's not only uplifting, but it gives me a sense of pride for my generation."

Yet the very idea of third-graders studying basic algebra, a subject usually delayed until middle or high school, seems alien.

This man makes kids like algebra: SEED instructor Chet Baker teaches Jeff Sughrue's third-grade class at Barbara Jordan Elementary.
This man makes kids like algebra: SEED instructor Chet Baker teaches Jeff Sughrue's third-grade class at Barbara Jordan Elementary.

It seems odder still in a school where nearly all the children, mostly from low-income Hispanic and African-American families, qualify for federally supported free lunches -- the usual yardstick for poverty -- and thus are labeled "at-risk," with all of its deflating assumptions: low test scores, lagging academic knowledge, and dim career prospects. The general assumption is that these kids should focus on the basics -- anything else is just a fanciful diversion from more pressing academic needs.

SEED's local stable of about 40 mathematicians, scientists, and engineers are resolute in their conviction that even children from hard-luck backgrounds can learn challenging material and develop critical-thinking skills. "By bringing the variables in early, the kids have no fear of it," says Glee, who has taught in the program since 1982.

"The biggest barrier," says Chet Baker, "is the expectations of the educators."

Low expectations are shattered when instructors see their children tackling tough math problems in SEED classes. "You can see you are changing teachers' attitudes on how they view their kids," says Bledsoe, who left engineering work in Silicon Valley to join the program. "That kind of daily gratification you don't get at most jobs."

Teachers, who must juggle a plethora of tasks and responsibilities, are largely grateful for the help from math specialists, though when SEED instructors were first assigned to his classes last year, Jeff Sughrue admits, he was a skeptic.

"My first thought was that it was going to be over the kids' heads and it didn't serve a purpose," he says. But now Sughrue uses the SEED hand signals and integrates more challenging concepts like variables in regular math lessons.

Harold Morrison, principal of Barbara Jordan Elementary, also is a fan. When he taught at Pearl C. Anderson Learning Center in South Dallas, Glee came to his class to teach SEED's brand of accelerated math. Ever since then he has been a convert. "It's, 'You're doing algebraic equations. Now, who said you were dumb?'" Morrison says. "The kids are very receptive. They can do a lot more than we give them credit for."

SEED's officers point to a substantial amount of research, much of it conducted in Dallas, that they say highlights their program's strong and long track record. Studies in Dallas found rises in test scores and an increased likelihood of enrollment and success in higher math courses later in school with SEED participation. "I've had principals tell me, 'I can always tell a Project SEED student by the way they walk,'" says Glee, the program's director.

The program has gained support from elected leaders as well. "The first time I attended a classroom, I was amazed these kids were doing algebra and exponents," says Hollis Brashear, a member of the Dallas school board of trustees. "It's always amazing to see young boys and girls solve problems quickly. And it's amazing how it improves their vocabulary. They're using words like congruent, parallel, and adjacent."

Backers say Project SEED is a promising way to teach minority children, and the methods of instruction it employs may be especially attuned to black culture. William Tate, DISD's new scholar in residence and a math-education professor on leave from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cites a 1994 California study that praised SEED for incorporating features "common to African-American culture such as audience participation, choral responses, cooperation, collective responsibility for problem solving, flexibility, and strong adult leadership."

Certainly, singling out characteristics of any one group is a tricky proposition. But Brashear, who is black, agrees that SEED plays to the strengths of black children. "We're a very expressive people, especially our boys," Brashear says. "Go to our churches. You see people expressing themselves. We do it in music and entertainment."

The point, Brashear says, is that "many times, African-American students have been told math is very difficult. Project SEED enables them to overcome that fear that math is hard."

Debate over SEED's merits spills into the new and growing field of "ethnomathematics," which challenges the permeation of "Eurocentrism" in mathematics education, an influence some claim harms students from non-European cultures. Although he considers himself first and foremost an education-policy expert, Tate has written scholarly articles calling for math curricula to reflect the "thinking and experience of African-American students."

These days, going too far down the road of attuning educational practices to cultural behaviors can leave one open to charges of unfair stereotyping, cultural stigmatization, and the like. Witness the "ebonics" fiasco in Oakland, California, three years ago. Project SEED sidesteps such salvos because of its higher-level math focus and track record. "Project SEED is in a fortunate situation," Tate says, "because it has statistical data to support its effectiveness, and you can't argue with that."

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