Grand Center Arts Academy: a Budding Algebra Project Site

by | Jun 24, 2024

In downtown St. Louis, there’s a neighborhood called the Grand Center Arts District. It’s known for its art galleries, busking musicians, and off-Broadway performances. It’s also the home to a charter school called Grand Center Arts Academy (GCAA), one under a network of non-profit public charters called Confluence Academies. This one is unique, however.

“It is an arts-focused school. Once students enter high school, they have to choose a pathway – whether it’s theater, musical theater, visual arts, music, or dance,” Elisabeth Reeder, a 9th-grade math teacher and Chair of the GCAA Math Department, provides a glimpse into the school’s distinctive approach.

GCAA aims to cultivate budding artists in the community by providing an art-centered education.

“The space here is beautiful and safe. The biggest priority is that the kids are safe to be themselves, to be creative, and to achieve what they want to achieve,” Karyn Jones, another 9th-grade math teacher, describes the school. The nurturing environment at GCAA, from its heavy emphasis on art inside the building to the unique way teachers structure their classroom environment, is crucial to the school’s mission of fostering artistic growth.

But, despite many strides promoting excellence in artistry, Dr. Erin King, Assistant Principal for Math and Science at GCAA, has a vision for what the school can be. She wants to further elevate the school’s academic reputation alongside its artistic acclaim and have people recognize GCAA not only for its arts programs but also for its strong academic offerings. “We do have lots of high-achieving academic students here, but I would like for that to be more of a selling point to our school as well,” she says. They implemented the Algebra Project as a significant step towards this vision.

During the unprecedented struggle of COVID-19, schools had to contend with a breakneck move to virtual education. Gary Ritter, the Dean of the School of Education at St. Louis University, had a contract with St. Louis Public Schools to conduct professional development sessions for teachers and began brainstorming solutions with Greg Budzban.

Greg, known affectionately at GCAA as Dr. B, began working with the Algebra Project both as a PD Specialist and through the development of curriculum ever since meeting Bob Moses in 2001. He had been a math professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale prior to moving to the Edwardsville Campus of SIU in 2015, which happened to be located just across the river from St. Louis. He remained there as Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences until retiring in 2020. Fortuitously, he had long sought opportunities to support math literacy initiatives in the St. Louis metropolitan area, so when Gary reached out, Greg knew the Algebra Project’s experientially-based teaching and learning strategies could be adapted to provide online PD sessions.

Greg and the Algebra Project team agreed to take on this challenge. Despite the district-wide reach of the invitation to the initial session, only two teachers attended the workshops – both were from Confluence Academies. This planted the seeds for the future GCAA pilot collaboration.

Elisabeth became the cornerstone of this pilot.

“Elisabeth has a wonderfully curious nature and wants to understand why things are true in math, not just that they are true. This makes her a powerful teacher. She also brings a fun side to her classroom,” engaging students through activities like ‘math court’ where they argue about mathematical proofs, Greg explains.

Elisabeth judging math court

One of the significant challenges Elisabeth still faces is instilling confidence in her students. “The biggest thing is kids who just do not have any confidence whatsoever in their ability to do math,” she notes. Many students struggle with believing in their mathematical capabilities, often second-guessing their answers and seeking constant validation.

To combat this, Elisabeth encourages a mindset shift. She humorously recounts, “Yesterday, I told them that next year there’s going to be a giant sign in my room that says the two questions never allowed are ‘Is this right?’ and any other form of that.”

One key component of the Algebra Project approach is to promote student self-reliance and critical thinking, developing the confidence they need to tackle complex problems independently and in collaboration with their peers, thus coming to truly view themselves as mathematicians. To accomplish this, the Algebra Project employs its Five-Step Curricular Process which leverages experiential learning.

Karyn, who had previously read Bob Moses and Charlie Cobb’s book Radical Equations and held a deep appreciation for Algebra Project’s unique pedagogical approach, finds it perfectly aligned with her educational philosophy. “As soon as I found out what the Algebra Project is, I was all about it,” she says. “It just kind of re-energized and reaffirmed my faith in my career choice.”

Karyn’s students recall their experiences vividly. They started with number lines, physically interacting with each other to understand integers not just as quantities, but as a directional ‘which way’, too. “Ms. Jones created a number line at the front of the class where she would have some of us stand on the number line and see how many steps it would take for us to get to each other,” a student shares. This hands-on approach makes abstract mathematical concepts tangible and accessible.

Synthesizing physical activities with more abstract representations, students engaged in activities like the Road Coloring puzzle, where they built cities and uncovered patterns to develop their own solutions to routes while maintaining certain parameters. This not only reinforced their understanding of mathematical principles but also allowed them to express their creativity. “Everybody had to make sure that each person got from point A to point B and made sure it followed the rules,” a student explains. “If you didn’t follow the rules, you didn’t get to point B. You basically had to understand the lesson to (solve the puzzle), but it was in a fun way.”

Teachers like Karyn are central to the success of the Algebra Project at GCAA. Her enthusiasm and commitment to her students is palpable inside her classroom. “Having a teacher who wants to help you . . . that helps a lot,” one student remarks, highlighting the difference Karyn makes in their learning experience. Karyn, who prior to coming to GCAA had been reconsidering her career path as a teacher, now says she feels deeply rewarded by her work at GCAA, stating, “My students have completely reaffirmed my hope in teaching and affirmed my teaching ability.”

Her students feel the same. “Before I came to this school, I didn’t really like math at all,” one student admits. “But once I had Ms. Jones’ class and I realized how interactive she was and that she actually cared about me getting lessons, I was like, now that’s what I’m talking about.”

Among the current Algebra Project teachers, there is also an 8th-grade math teacher, Jordan Cook. Despite the different grade level, GCAA made it a point to have the entire math department on the same floor, meaning Jordan’s class is right across the hall from Elisabeth’s. This is perfect for an Algebra Project implementation where collaboration among teachers is key.

“The upper administration has been very supportive. We discussed the need for a common planning period during the design team year due to the new curriculum. Understanding that teachers needed additional planning time, they ensured we had a common planning period once a week for the whole team. This allows us to do things like common prep and professional development effectively,” Greg explains.

Erin actually volunteered to give up her office space during Algebra Project support meetings, providing her with a unique view into how it has helped teachers. “Dr. B would come every couple of weeks and he really was available for teachers to get that extra support.”

Greg holds a similar view of Erin. “Dr. King has been very supportive of the Algebra Project and the teachers. She knew about it from her previous work and has been actively involved in understanding and promoting its pedagogy. Her engagement has been crucial in implementing the Project successfully,” Greg explains.

“Every single one of our kids is involved in this,” Erin emphasizes GCAA’s focus on creating holistic learning environments. “No one is just wandering aimlessly through high school here. Everyone has a focus.” This integration ensures that students not only excel in their chosen artistic pathways but also achieve academic success.

“Those workshops that were intended for St. Louis public schools actually ended up being the connection that started our relationship with Confluence Academies and GCAA,” Greg notes the serendipitous nature of the Algebra Project and GCAA collaboration.

Greg is optimistic about the direction the school is heading, “I believe that GCAA has the ingredients to make a national impact. The team of teachers is outstanding, with the interest, energy, and cognitive flexibility to handle the demands of the Algebra Project pedagogy and curriculum. Combined with supportive administration and creative students, I expect us to be very successful.”

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