Saturday, May 21, 2011

Breaking Into School

At 3:15 at Anacostia High School, most of the students who have not strolled out at 1:45 race out of the building almost as if tear gas has been set off.  Ideally, students should hang around, consult with teachers, make up work, get some tutoring, do some tutoring, or be engaged in a club or a sport.

You may have read about the baseball diamond in the rough who was without a team because not enough players were appearing for his team's practices or games.  DeAnthony Ellis, possibly the best ballplayer to come out of D.C. since Emanuel Burriss, is allowed to play for Cardozo High School this spring because his Anacostia team disbanded.

The teachers' union contract does not help, allowing teachers to hightail it out of the building soon after the 3:15 bell.  Metro does not help, only providing school buses in a 5-10 minute window after 3:15.  If students don't catch that 3:20 bus, they have to walk a few blocks further to get to the main line.  (Many of DC's high schools are more than a few blocks from Metro stations.  Anacostia's is a mile away from the Metro.)

But this story has a happy ending, sortof.  Last fall, I started a MATHlete club for the math students at Anacostia. Students were nominated by their math teachers for their performance in class as well as their potential.  We met at lunch since I was told that meeting after school was next to impossible.  We had a grant from the nice folks from the American Institutes for Research which enabled us to provide pizza at lunch, graphing calculators, and awards (see below).

So we met at lunch for 4-5 months, and in April I told the kids, "We are going to have a math competition against Cesar Chavez, [ RICH's other partner school], after school in May.  How many of you can commit to two practices after school and then a competition, all after school on Wednesdays, in May?"  Most of a dozen hands went up, but I knew I was swimming upstream, since the school tilts open when 3:15 hits, and the kids pour out regardless of whether there is an exciting math club meeting going on upstairs.  Sure enough, when the first meeting came, there was only Rob.  He and I had a good time, but it was not the same, and we missed the camaraderie.  I made a bunch of phone calls that night and the following Tuesday night, and the following week we had three kids until D showed up.  "I heard you were absent," I said.  "I was," he said smiling.  Nice, I thought.  He is gone all day (at the dentist) and comes back for MATHletes!  The week after that we had five students for the competition, and the team did well, losing 13-12 to Chavez.  Each school had an individual champion.  Alonzo is pictured with me with a $25 prize; he also won a TI-84 graphing calculator.

So what do we have here?  Is this anything?  I think so, and this summer I hope to find out.  We want to hire the Anacostia MATHletes to be tutors at our new site at Oxford Manor, the beautiful apartment building refurbished by the good folks at the Community Preservation Development Corporation .  After they do some tutoring, we want the MATHletes to stay and learn some topics that they won't get at Anacostia but would get at any competitive school in the region:  matrices, linear programming, trigonometry beyond right triangles, just to name a few topics.

From the beginning, we have wanted the MATHletes to feel differently about themselves.  In a year where they have lost a classmate to gunshot violence, lost a great math teacher (she didn't die; her husband got transferred) and see dozens of unemployed adults in the street every day, they have a bit of hope about themselves.  Thanks to the generosity of our donors, they may have an interesting summer doing math.  More importantly, if we can keep their interest up in school, they will work hard and earn significant college scholarships at good schools. 

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