It's just after 3:30 p.m. and uniformed students are fleeing ConneXions Leadership Academy, a middle school in northwest Baltimore, at an alarming pace. In the lobby, a fluorescent light spastically flashes on and off the backpacked masses and the cinder block walls as a pair of spiders scour the floor for remnants of lunch.
A dozen high school students fight the tide and make their way to the stairs and up to a large room on the second floor. It's a geometry classroom, but you wouldn't know it: The half-painted walls are bare except for one small bulletin board where photocopied pages of a young-readers book on African American heroes have been stapled.
The older students, many of whom wear buttons that read "No Education, No Life," are greeted by younger counterparts and they all begin unloading textbooks, blocks, and checkers. Most teachers and administrators have left the building, but the two dozen students assembled sit down for the better part of an hour to try and get their heads around concepts like ratios, fractions, and proportions.
This is the Baltimore Algebra Project in action. They are the local chapter of a national group that trains and pays students to tutor their peers in math. The tutors, who must pass a test to get a job, use a teaching method that employs real-world physical examples to demonstrate concepts before translating them into mathematical notation.
"Their methods work sometimes when mine don't," says Geneve Garcia, who teaches algebra and geometry at ConneXions. The school pays the tutors and encourages struggling students to work with them. "The test scores almost always improve," Garcia says. Since Algebra Project organizers trained their first 10 Baltimore tutors in 2000, the program has grown to include 150 tutors helping more than 300 students at six schools around the city.
But tutoring is only one method Algebra Project offers students to improve their education. The national group encourages its members to organize to overcome all learning barriers, even governmental and institutional ones. And while chapters in places like Boston and Chicago have kept their focus on tutoring, students in Baltimore have embraced the activist agenda: Largely by word-of-mouth, Baltimore Algebra Project has attracted smart, disaffected kids from every corner of the city and transformed them into a bloc of advocates channeling their frustration at the institutions they're convinced are holding them back. And recently those advocates—some of them in college now—formed a coalition called Peer-to-Peer Youth Enterprises with 22 other student-led organizations in the city, to try to broaden their power base and pool their resources.
Chris Goodman got involved in Baltimore Algebra Project in 2001, a year after the group began tutoring. As an eighth grader at Stadium School, he didn't pay much attention to his school work, preferring to play basketball and video games. His teacher recommended he go to the Project's tutoring sessions and he agreed, mostly because they had free snacks, he admits now. The extra help improved his grades and the next year, as a freshman at City College, he began working as an Algebra Project tutor. But the event that truly changed Goodman's life was an Algebra Project trip to Eastern Tech, a public high school in Baltimore County. "There were cars in the engineering room, two gyms, and a library filled with books," he says, eyes still widening at the memory. "That just blew my mind. They always told us City is one of the best schools in the country and I was like 'Wow. They're lying.' I got angry."
Soon after, Goodman helped launch the Algebra Project's advocacy committee and became its chairman. He and other committed students went to school board and City Council meetings, met with superintendents and legislators, and ultimately decided they couldn't rely on public officials to fight for them.
"I used to think, yeah, schools are pretty messed up, but people are trying to change it on North Avenue, down at City Hall, [and] in Annapolis," says Goodman, now a sophomore at Morgan State. "We went down there and found out they're not trying to change it. A lot of them feel like they can't change it. They're satisfied with the schools not having toilet paper. They don't lose any sleep over the fact that 50 percent of males that go into high school don't finish. So I thought, you have to spread the word, you have to let people know because the people sitting in those big comfortable chairs, they're not trying to hear this."
In its activism, the Algebra Project employs the tactics of the civil rights movement: They staged their first major demonstration in 2006, a "die-in" during which 400 students sprawled out in front of the state Department of Education offices to protest a plan to consolidate schools and to demand resources comparable to those elsewhere in the state. On subsequent days, they repeated the scene in front of the city Board of Education office and City Hall, carrying signs that read "No Education, No Life"—their enduring slogan. They galvanized hundreds of students and community members to speak out at public hearings and ultimately moved the state to scale back its consolidation plan.
In February, they carried a coffin up the steps of the State House in Annapolis to protest the "historic under-funding" of city schools: 25 protesters were arrested, but others earned a meeting with Governor O'Malley.
And in May, they camped outside City Hall to demand that $3 million in funding for after-school programs like the Algebra Project that had been cut from the budget be restored. Mayor Sheila Dixon met with the students and suggested that instead of working as tutors, they could get jobs at the new Target in the Mondawmin Mall. Undeterred, they launched a hunger strike and brought 200 angry students to a gala the mayor had planned to promote youth programs in the city, turning it into a mass protest. As a result of the ongoing agitation, Mayor Dixon last month announced the creation of the seven-member Youth Employment Opportunities Task Force, to include three representatives from Peer-to-Peer Youth Enterprises, that will likely help fund several youth-employment programs in the city, including the Baltimore Algebra Project.
The connection to the movements of the 1960s is no accident. Nationally, the Algebra Project was founded by Bob Moses, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and a chief architect of Freedom Summer, the 1964 movement to register African-Americans in Mississippi to vote. He took the ideas of that movement—empower the underserved to advocate for their own rights—and applied them to education.
Jay Gillen, a former city math teacher who helped bring the Algebra Project to Baltimore and is now the city schools' facilitator for the group, says that, contrary to popular opinion, students want a better education, but either don't know that higher standards are possible or lack the access to demand it. "The typical stereotype is that young people are apathetic about education—they don't do their homework, they drop out, their families don't care—and that's used as an excuse for us to tolerate an ineffective school system," he says. "The Algebra Project's approach is that students are able and willing to organize themselves in whatever ways they need to, to overcome obstacles to their education so that, instead of appearing apathetic, they're demanding what everyone says they don't want."
Gillen organized the trip that took Chris Goodman and students at the city's public schools to Eastern Tech, in part, to see that better facilities are possible. Cherdaya Allen, a senior at Western High School, was one of the students tutoring at ConneXions. She joined the Algebra Project last year to earn money but, through her involvement, learned how poorly city schools stacked up against others in the state. "You don't know what's going wrong with your community unless someone tells you—if you see it from birth, you figure there's nothing you can do," she says. "But working with the Algebra Project taught me I have a voice. I can make a difference. I can make change."
Allen tutors with the Algebra Project two afternoons a week and spends virtually all of her free time attending meetings or other events for Peer-to-Peer Youth Enterprises. Like some of the most involved kids, she is strongly supported by her parents—her mother is an organizer with Service Employers Industrial Union (SEIU). "She doesn't like me working long hours," says Allen. "But she understands what I'm doing and she's supportive."
The creation of Peer-to-Peer Youth Enterprises has united Algebra Project tutors like Goodman and Allen with like-minded students from other organizations. Nicole Cheatom got involved in debating as a middle school student at Lombard. "I like to talk a lot so my teacher told me I should join the debate team," she says. When she moved on to Western High School, she joined the Baltimore Urban Debate League, one of Peer-to-Peer's member groups. She was quickly drawn to the group's activism. "You get inspired by seeing other people working to improve schools," she says.
Cheatom, now a freshman at Coppin State, still coaches debate teams at local high schools and is one of the most active organizers in Peer-to-Peer. She was serving hot dogs and macaroni salad in October at the coalition's Block Rock Extravaganza, a festival held behind the School Board headquarters on North Avenue, where all the different Peer-to-Peer groups have a space to showcase their work. A group called Wide Angle Media, which trains young people to use technology to tell their story, had a laptop where they showed student-produced videos. The Algebra Project was using the game Connect 4 to teach a lesson about ratios, and the Legal Aid Youth Council was distributing flyers about the November elections. The Hip-Hop Congress sold CDs of student-produced music.
Days later, at a weekly Peer-to-Peer planning meeting, a decidedly more workmanlike phase of the movement is apparent. The coalition's primary goal is to raise money for an investment fund to support the member groups. So far, they have raised about $60,000 from foundations and private investors. At the meeting, a couple of students present a proposal to form a promotion committee, which would take $27,000 of the group's capital and use it to promote events that, they argue, would help raise money more quickly
The 20 or so students in the room, who represent several of the coalition groups, go back and forth debating the merits of the plan, moderated by Ralikh Hayes, a junior at Poly (they rotate who leads the meetings each week). The few adults in attendance, mostly advisors to groups in the coalition, strain to keep themselves from interjecting in the discussion and let the students hash it out.
"Our job is to make sure that the young people are the ones who are doing the leading," says Gillen. "It's the hardest work to do, to not step in, to not make decisions on their behalf, but to help them learn how to advocate for themselves."
The students have been heartened to find allies among adults. Besides the very active advisers, they cite several teachers and some administrators and local legislators as supporters, including councilpeople Mary Pat Clarke and Bill Henry and schools superintendent Dr. Andrés Alonso.
After 40 minutes of discussion, the students ultimately vote to table the discussion of a promotions committee until the next meeting. To an outsider, it might have seemed like a waste of time, but the students relish the opportunity to consider such lofty questions—and to make their own decisions. Fred Ihezie, a junior at Poly and one of the students who proposed the promotion committee, says he's not at all disappointed that it wasn't approved. "It's okay," he says. "This is a long process."