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Mobtown Beat

Learning the Hard Way

Baltimore Algebra Project Protests School System’s Decision To Cut Its Funding

Frank Klein
BRAINSTORM: (from left) Algebra Project participants Erin Holley and LaShawn Keyser try to think of ways to get the city school system to fund the tutoring/activism program for 2005-'06.

By Kate Leventhal | Posted 7/13/2005

Neither sweltering heat nor rain deterred outraged supporters of the Baltimore Algebra Project from holding a press conference outside the Baltimore City Public School System headquarters on June 28. Though thunderstorms threatened in the distance, nearly 25 students, representatives from the Baltimore Teachers Union, the NAACP, and the citywide PTA gathered outside North Avenue to protest the fact that the Algebra Project, which pays student mentors to tutor middle-schoolers in math, has been cut from the city school system’s budget for 2005-’06.

The school system did not approve $80,000 that the Algebra Project had requested to provide its tutoring services to students throughout the city. The group was formed in 1994 to help kids struggling with math skills keep up with their classmates.

“They want to cut a project for the students and people they are giving a service to,” says Chelsea Carson, 17, a tutor with the program. “They are taking away the relationship and bonds [students have built] with tutors.”

Supporters of the Algebra Project, which made news last year for being outspoken and aggressive in its criticism of the Maryland State Board of Education, suspect that part of the reason the program has been cut from the budget is its activism (“Mathematical Persuasion,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 8, 2004). At the rally outside the school system’s headquarters, protestors railed against the school system’s administrators, accusing it of trying to curtail the group’s advocacy work.

Over the past two years, the Algebra Project has placed itself in the public eye by holding protests and rallies and making appearances at public meetings, demanding that the state fulfill its obligations to fully fund the city’s schools. In 2004, a Circuit Court judge ordered that the state pour $30 million to $45 million into the school system, but the state refused. The Algebra Project has protested the refusal multiple times, and the group even made an appearance at an October 2004 State Board of Education meeting, during which students threatened to make a citizen’s arrest of State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick. The meeting adjourned quickly, and the arrest never took place.

Since that October meeting, which gained the group a good deal of media attention, members of the Algebra Project have held marches and rallies on behalf of the city’s beleaguered schools. In December, members of the group imitated the anti-smoking campaign called “The Truth,” which broadcasts graphic images, such as body bags scattered along a street to represent people who die from tobacco-related disease, in TV commercials. The Algebra Project taped red X’s to student volunteers, who laid down in front of the State Department of Education’s downtown Baltimore headquarters. The message they were trying to convey, Algebra Project members say, was “No education, no life.”

Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th) spoke at the rally the Algebra Project held in June. She praised the group for training future city mentors, teachers, and leaders. Clarke says it seems as if no one knows for certain why the organization’s funding has been cut but expresses the suspicion shared by many Algebra Project supporters. “I’m afraid the system might just be trying to eliminate the voice of protest,” she says.

Chamir Lawson, a mentor with the Algebra Project and a mathematics education major at Morgan State University, says that if the program is lost it will be a blow to the kids it has helped over the years since its inception more than a decade ago.

“We show students that they can do the math and help build up their confidence, not only in math but in their every day life,” Lawson says. “This is why I say that the Baltimore Algebra Project isn’t just a tutoring program, but we are also mentors—youth helping and building up other youth.”

When contacted about the decision to cut the Algebra Project’s funding, school system officials had little information. Baltimore City School Board member James Campbell says he was surprised to learn that the system cut the Algebra Project’s funding. “I wish I knew more about it,” Campbell says. “We’re trying to find out why.”

Calls to city schools CEO Bonnie Copeland’s office were not returned by press time.

State School Board member Dunbar Brooks says he respects the students’ right to protest, though he says the group’s early demonstrations were a bit “rocky.” He says that the Algebra Project’s most recent presentations to the state Board of Education this spring were more effective in getting the students’ message across. Brooks says he could not speak for the entire board, but he says he would not want to discourage the Algebra Project from taking an active role in school issues.

“I’ve actually encouraged them to be very vigilant,” he says.

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