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Students Going to Church to Learn Algebra

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Cal State University, church partnership helping students overcome hurdles to college

By Chris Levister –

Walking the corridors of Temple Learning Center you’d be forgiven for passing Linda Davis’ noisy class without a second glance. It looks from the outside at least pretty much like all the other nondescript classrooms that line this hallway.

Until you take a closer listen. Davis… “Yellow, blue, yellow blue...patterns, patterns...come on concepts…focus, focus what comes next.” Students…”Yellow, blue…” Davis…what comes next…come on you can do this don’t be afraid…what comes next…” “Yellow, blue,” answers 3-year-old Stayce Bradley of Mira Loma. Hovering over six students Davis asks, “What kind of math are we learning…”

“Algebra,” the students shout…. “Give me a high five,” Davis says slapping the flat of their palm against the palm and flat hand of Tyler Pinkey, 3.

Linda Davis teaches algebra. Never mind that her students carry Disney’s Princess and the Frog and Power Ranger backpacks, still have most of their baby teeth and have the alphabet taped on their desks. “These preschoolers are learning the “gatekeeper” course that determines whether students will have access to higher education,” she says with a big grin.

Further down the hall 8th and 9th graders are pondering mathematically complex ways to arrive at 9: - 219 + 228 or (10 x 5) - 40 - 1, or even (3 x 3) + (8 x 8) - ((4 x 4) + (4 x 4)) - 32.

Temple preschool director Davis is a credentialed math educator who, with the help of five instructors, is teaching San Bernardino students the fundamentals of math through the CSU Summer Algebra Institute. The institute is a partnership between the California State University and the Temple Learning Center, which is affiliated with Temple Missionary Baptist Church.

Hundreds of junior high school students across California are going to church to learn algebra. CSU has partnered with churches to conduct Summer Algebra Institutes in regions of high need throughout the state. The primary objective is to help pre-9th grade students from underrepresented communities meet or exceed grade level understanding of math concepts. The programs are set in church facilities where teachers present summer sessions focused on important math concepts.

More than 10 years ago Davis gave up using worksheets of addition and subtraction problems in exchange for algebraic thinking. By the third grade, her students are solving equations with letter variables. What is the biggest challenge to teaching algebra?

“Fear, without question,” says Davis. “You have to introduce concepts, visual and audio stimuli and demystify … You’ve got to take math out of the realm of obscurity. She says people get scared off by how hard algebra looks and sounds.

“They get caught up in formulas like the form "y < 2x + 3"). They don’t take time to work through concepts. As a result, they shun math and it scares them all their life.”

Why teach algebra to preschoolers? “Why not,” says Davis. “Early on, children develop an awareness of shapes, colors, patterns and numbers. They intuitively know how to add – “you can have two more toys” -- and subtract – “put three of those toys away.” They can create and solve much more interesting problems than 2 + 2 from their first weeks of school.

“Children by nature are curious so why not open their little heads and pour in this beautiful knowledge.”

"Something happens when Stayce plays with numbers every day there is a measurable improvement in his cognition skills, said the 3 year olds father Etiwanda Unified School District instructional assistant Brian Bradley. “These students don't do worksheets, use flash cards or memorize multiplication tables. Yet by third and fourth grade, most of them add, subtract and multiply quickly and accurately.” Each summer algebra institute offers four half-day sessions of intense algebra training, plus one half-day of academic enrichment, every week. The program runs for a month or longer, and–in a year where most state supported programs are shrinking–the CSU Summer Algebra Institutes are increasing.

“I see a lot of students who complete K-12 without a solid foundation in math. Jobs in the research, technology, engineering and medical fields all require a proficiency in math. Introducing kids to math and algebra concepts at an early age puts them on track to college and ultimately prosperity,” said Bradley.

The algebra institutes are helping students overcome one of the largest hurdles to gaining college acceptance: math skills, says Tony Ross, vice president of student affairs for California State University, Los Angeles and coordinator of the CSU African American Initiative.

“Not enough underrepresented students enter high school ready for Algebra 1; thus they risk not being ready for college when they graduate high school,” says Ross.

“Math skills are an access issue and a key to prosperity. With a solid foundation in math, students will have more career options when it comes to the fastest-growing sectors of our economy.”

One solution to this math problem, CSU officials say. “Consider x is middle- and high-school students, y is African American churches in Southern California, and z is the California State University (CSU); then 500x + 16y + z = 16 CSU Summer Algebra Institute programs.”