By Dina Martin
If you asked fifth-grade students in Wendy Gallimore’s class at Allison Elementary School to name their favorite subject and you thought they responded “Algebra!” — do not check your hearing.
Chances are, you heard right. That’s because Gallimore’s students, along with fifth- and sixth-graders in Danalynn Zacharias’s and Kim Rohall’s classes, have been immersed in the Allison Algebra Project, a teacher-driven program that emphasizes the importance of math — specifically, algebra — in gaining entrance to college. The program is not only unique to Allison and the Twin Rivers Unified School District, it is the first such program in the nation to target elementary school students.
Recognizing that their students needed more support in math, the Allison teachers sought out and developed the Algebra Project at their school site — initially as an after-school program, and then as part of their curriculum. The teachers not only implemented the program, they’ve worked to make sure it is aligned with state standards.
The Allison Algebra Project is funded by CTA’s Institute for Teaching (IFT), a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes innovative teacher-driven programs in selected California schools. IFT is supported by dues contributions from CTA members last year. For this project, the IFT has joined forces with the Sacramento Valley Organizing Committee/Industrial Areas Foundation (SVOC), the Twin Rivers Unified School District, and UC Davis’s School of Education/CRESS Center.
Students in those classes develop algebraic reasoning through classroom work, enrichment activities and field trips. Parents are invited several times a year to a Family Math Night where they can spend an evening eating, doing algebra exercises with their children, and connecting with other parents.
Nearly 100 parents showed up for a recent raucous Family Math Night in the school cafeteria. As more than a dozen Spanish-speaking parents received instruction translated through specialized headphones, others worked intently as their children explained the math concepts they are learning in class.
“I love it!” exclaimed Rene Perry, an already-active parent who was pleased with the Parents Night turnout. “Parent involvement for the Algebra Project is awesome. Parents want to be involved, and these events make that possible.”
Because of her involvement with the school, Perry knew in advance about the Algebra Project and asked that her daughter, Leah, be placed in the class.
“She had been struggling with math, but now she is already working at grade level,” Perry said.
“The Algebra Project was started because so many students get to high school thinking they aren’t good in math, so then they don’t think they are college-bound,” said Sister Maribeth Larkin, an SVOC staffer who is working with parents in the project to get them more involved in education. “This is about preparing children for math so they can prepare for higher education.”
The Algebra Project was founded in 1982 by Harlem-born and Harvard-educated civil rights leader Dr. Robert P. Moses, who once said, “Becoming literate in mathematics is a life-and-death issue for the black community. If we don’t get it, we’re headed for a new form of serfdom.”
Through his work and his book, Radical Equation: Civil Rights From Mississippi to the Algebra Project, Moses has set the stage for disadvantaged youth to gain that access.
The three Twin Rivers teachers involved in the program took a two-week intensive at the Algebra Project’s Summer Institute in Chicago this summer and will continue to take monthly professional development trainings.
Gallimore is pleased with her students’ progress so far. “It’s the first time I’ve gotten kids to understand that negative 4 is smaller than negative 1,” she said.
Now students are “mathematizing” sentences from stories and turning them into algebraic equations; learning about order of operations through a cookie-baking session in the classroom; and touring Old Town Sacramento to create a “trip line” in which students chart their steps to learn about positive and negative numbers, and later writing about their experiences on worksheets. Another recent project involved investigating the Chinese Zodiac to help understand the concept of “remainder.” An upcoming lesson will bring a locally known percussionist into the classroom to teach math through the rhythms of African drumming.
Gaining more confidence in math has also given students more confidence in the class. One recent afternoon, an autistic student who had not previously spoken in class stood up to talk about an answer to a problem he had worked out.
Kim Rohall, a special education teacher who works with learning disabled children from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, has also seen progress with her students.
“To me, this is huge. The students are really engaged, and they are getting it,” she reported. “Parents are calling me and asking, ‘Is my kid really doing that?’”
Since the program was just implemented in the fall, it has yet to be determined if it will boost test scores, but teachers are hopeful, and researchers at UC Davis are closely monitoring the project and collecting data to determine if introducing algebra at an earlier age is efficacious. The researchers will also work with the teachers to help them conduct their own research, which will be useful for others down the line.
Yet another important aspect of the program is to encourage students to think about college — and to take them on field trips to college campuses. Students have already visited Sierra College, a local community college in Rocklin, and in February will take a trip to UC Davis. As part of these exercises, they are asked to write about their goals and obstacles, and how they might overcome them.
Not to be lost in the pedagogy is the community organizing aspect of the project. It is hoped that as parents get more involved in the school, they will become advocates for improvements in public education. In addition to the family math nights, parents will be urged to attend other meetings where they will hopefully build relations with one another and learn to become a stronger force in the community.
To read more about the Allison Algebra Project, visit CTA’s Institute for Teaching at www.teacherdrivenchange.org.