It was a problem plaguing math classes across the school district. Dipping her head into classrooms, Alex Ries would sometimes find students had written the answer to a math problem on the board. Wanting to engage with them and learn their process, she’d ask how they got the answer. Assuming the question implied their answer was wrong (it often wasn’t!) the student would hurriedly erase the answer and return to their seat.
Now, she says, that no longer happens. When she enters an Algebra Project classroom, students are confident and more than happy to defend their thinking.
Ries, Assistant Principal at Boyd Anderson High School, has played a key role in supporting the implementation of the Algebra Project in Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) in Florida, and she has a lot of takeaways from the experience.
Formerly Co-Director of Secondary Mathematics at the district level for BCPS, Ries made the unique decision to instead work at the school level and become the assistant principal at Boyd Anderson High School in Broward. But her initial encounter with the Algebra Project dates back before then, when in February 2017 she attended an Algebra Project conference in St. Louis, with then Chief Academic Officer Dan Gohl, that would have an outsized effect on how she viewed mathematics.
She did her own research on the organization, on Bob Moses, and read up on its history. She retained interest in the Algebra Project’s work, so when another conference came along, she extended the invitation to her math team. “I wanted to make sure they saw the vision. That they understood the importance of math literacy, of equity, of academic excellence.” At the conference, it was her conversations with teachers that sealed her interest in working with the Algebra Project. As a former math teacher, she saw the math literacy effort for underserved populations as a spectacular effort.
Bringing the Algebra Project into Broward County has been a collaborative effort, she points out. Dr. Maria Lovett and Dr. Joan Wynne of Florida International University (FIU), along with others from Broward College, the Miami AP/YPP Advisory Council, and from BCPS – including Ries – started the Florida Local Alliance for Math Literacy and Equity (FLAME). Ries as Co-Director of BCPS Secondary Mathematics, with community help, began discussions towards establishing the Algebra Project, first with Hallandale High School and then Coconut Creek, and eventually brought the project to her own school, Boyd Anderson, where she serves as Assistant Principal, with the support of her Principal, James Griffin. The project has since also expanded to Margate Middle School in BCPS.
Of their greatest successes, she says it’s important to note that many Algebra Project students have scored higher on end of year exams, but to her, the greatest success is how they’ve learned to advocate for themselves, in the classroom but also spilling over into their day-to-day lives.
The pandemic presented a struggle for the program, still in its infancy. Targeting freshman in high school, the youngest cohort were 9th graders who hadn’t attended school in person since 7th grade, and it showed. Such a unique situation left many teachers unprepared to deal with a lack of maturity they had come to expect from middle schoolers but not of high schoolers. Ries commends Mr. Sellars, a teacher at Boyd Anderson H.S. who went through the AP professional development, for taking the extra time to be a mentor for these students who, she says within two months, were unrecognizable from the class she saw enter.
It’s precisely that mentorship that leads to the success so often seen in Algebra Project classrooms, she says. Because there is an increased expectation of school community support and because the project uses a cohort model where the same class stays with the same teacher throughout the years, the relationship teachers and students develop with each other are often like family.
Despite this structure, it comes with some pitfalls too, she has noticed. While the cohort model provides the structure necessary for students to succeed, it can sometimes leave teachers struggling. While most teachers teach the same class with the same curriculum every year, an Algebra Project teacher may go up to 2 or even 4 years without repeating curriculum. And without additional resources from the Algebra Project, like teacher editions of all curriculum modules (currently only available for some units), or video instruction material to help remind them of the course, the teachers become reliant on the Algebra Project flying down from Boston in order to provide professional learning support. Creating a structure in which the Algebra Project can exist in Broward County led by local teachers, math coaches and university support people, with or without the help of the Algebra Project team in Boston is what is truly necessary to scale the project and make it even larger, she believes.
As for the students, her biggest concern is “Summer Melt.” She has noted how frequently teachers can view their jobs as simply making sure their students walk across the graduation stage, but what has surprised her is how often those very students, who received full honors and lucrative scholarships, then never actually show up to their first day of college, especially among first generation college students.
The issue of Summer Melt has been widely documented, and there exist organizations attempting to combat it. She hopes to integrate some of those practices in BCPS to ensure that students aren’t forgotten about once they’ve graduated.
All of these issues go back to the idea of support, which she has noted is the most important aspect of the Algebra Project. With greater support for teachers learning the curriculum and greater support for students heading off to college, she envisions an even brighter future for her students.