The secret to teaching algebra to Chicago’s inner-city students may begin with a ride on the subway. That’s the idea behind the Algebra Project, a radical new program devised by civil-rights activist Robert Moses that has been introduced to six schools by a network of not-for-profit educators and activists.

“The spirit of the Algebra Project is that relatively complex studies, like higher mathematics, can be made readily understandable to inner-city children if you relate those studies to things in their worlds,” says Michael Hayes, the project’s coordinator. “Algebra is a pivotal part of a student’s education. If they learn algebra, they can go on to advanced math and then to college. If they don’t learn algebra, they can’t take college-entry courses and they get stuck behind and may never realize their potential as students.”

The legislation that enabled the Algebra Project to get started was the school reform law of 1988, which placed local schools under the control of locally elected councils of six parents, two teachers, and two residents. The councils were to supervise their schools’ budgets, principal selection, and curricula. During the first couple years of reform most attention was focused on a handful of high profile confrontations between school councils and the principals they were attempting to fire. Hardly any attention was paid to matters of curriculum.

“One of the most important contributions parents and other council members can make to their schools is through curriculum change,” says Susan Klonsky, a school activist and proponent of the Algebra Project. “This is at the heart of what reform is about.”

In the past curriculum was designed by a handful of well-paid bureaucrats who had little connection to the classroom. The programs they designed didn’t consider the needs of students, teachers complained, but were intended to create phony standards by which teacher performance could be judged.

One system-wide reading program called Mastery Learning attempted to reduce reading to the repetition of basic skills. No student could graduate to the next skill without passing a test. That meant hours spent taking and grading tests, wasting crucial class time that might otherwise have been spent reading books. Teachers were reduced to clerks. A few years ago, after parents threatened to file a lawsuit, the program was abolished.

Some reform groups, such as Designs for Change, are helping individual local school councils design new curricula. But the Algebra Project is the first detailed program to concentrate on mathematics.

“Bob Moses was one of the great leaders of the civil rights movement,” says Klonsky. “He was working down on the front lines of Mississippi, registering black people to vote when it was the equivalent of a capital crime to vote. He was shot at, beaten. His friends were killed. He is a committed man. One of the programs he helped start were freedom schools, in which an attempt was made by the teachers, who were civil rights activists, to live in the communities and understand the culture.”

After Moses left Mississippi, he lived in Tanzania. Then he moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he found work as a mathematician. His daughter, who was enrolled in a local school, started having problems in math. “Particularly in grasping the practicality of it,” says Klonsky. “It’s the same problem a lot of children have. They want to know ‘Why am I studying this?'”

One answer, of course, is that you should learn to appreciate higher forms of learning. Another much more practical response is that you must take algebra if you want to advance to college. “Algebra is the keeper to the track system,” says Hayes. “If you want to get your ticket to college, you have to take algebra. It wasn’t just a question of Robert Moses’s daughter. There were hundreds of kids who were not realizing their potential because they couldn’t get through those first few algebra classes.”

So Moses got permission to tutor his daughter and several other students. “What Bob wanted was an experience that all inner-city kids can relate to–a trip on a public transit system,” says Klonsky. “In Chicago it’s the el, in Boston it’s the T. They experience the event, which is important. They actually ride on the train. And for some children that’s a first–some children have never been out of their neighborhoods before.

“They have a destination–they’re not just getting on the train. They’re going to the Art Institute or the Cultural Center or O’Hare. We ask the kids to carry sketch pads to sketch things of interest. They keep a pictorial diary. When they get to the destination point, they eat and process the trip in a series of discussions with the teacher. As they talk, they bring some of the mathematical experiences to life. They talk about starting points and ending points and the numbers of stops and direction. You can even get into the velocity of the train.”

The teachers then zoom in on several assignments. “There are many questions you can ask,” says Hayes. “Let’s say you left at Garfield and got off at Washington. How many stops did you cover? Now take that and present it on a board, and then you can start a serious conversation about number lines. It lets the students take ownership of something that is abstract. It gives them a chance to be grounded in something that they have anxieties about–mathematics. It shows students that they can be mathematicians. Algebra is about equivalency or making do. That means being able to substitute an understood symbol that they develop to represent an abstract concept. So how do you demonstrate that with the subway? If you’re going from North Avenue to Washington that’s, let’s say, eight stops. What would the equivalence of that be if you were starting at the Division Street stop? The students can then take their maps and count back and do the calculations on their own.”

The program is designed for sixth-graders, who are at the critical stage of preparing for high school studies. “This is a transitional curriculum,” says Hayes. “It’s a bridge between kids who are nearing a new concept of numbers. We want to reach them before they get lost in high school.”

Within the city’s educational bureaucracy, the program has been championed by Dorothy Strong, director of the mathematics bureau. At the moment the project is being tested in six schools: Thaddeus Kosciuszko, 1424 N. Cleaver; Joan Arai Middle School, 900 W. Wilson; Michele Clark, 5101 W. Harrison; William Claude Reavis, 843 E. 50th St.; and Bret Harte, 1556 E. 56th St.

At first there was some concern that teachers or administrators who didn’t like activists or consultants coming in from the outside and dictating curriculum would reject the program. That’s why one of Moses’s precepts is that community groups have to be involved. By working with the local school councils, the Algebra Project coordinators also guarantee teachers a say.

“Moses says three ingredients have to be followed,” says Klonsky. “All the sixth-graders in the school have to be involved–this is not a pilot program. There has to be community support, which means participation by at least one community group per school. And there has to be some kind of follow-up in the seventh and eighth grades.”

So far the response has been positive. “It’s been an exceptionally well run program,” says DianA Rochon, principal at Bret Harte. “We’d like to see it expanded.”

Hayes and others have more ideas for teaching mathematics as well as business concepts. “We want children to see that there are mathematical skills involved in everything they do,” says Hayes. “We have something called Trading Day. That’s where they set up an economy in the classroom. You want to teach them about equivalence that’s grounded in a certain context. So, OK, you have one kid who has Mario Brothers, which is a computer game, and another kid who wants it. Then the kid who wants it has to trade a Nerfball basketball game plus something else to get it. It’s the kind of give-and-take trading that kids do all the time. But you’re giving them context. You’re showing them how it has relevance. If it teaches them to become a trader or a stockbroker, so much the better. The whole point is to expand their horizons and show them that they can be part of a much broader world than they ever thought.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photoJon Randolph.