Updated on 1/27
When Bob Moses brought his Algebra Project to Baltimore in 1990, he could hardly have imagined the impact his mathematics curriculum would have on the city’s youth two decades later.
Convinced that inner-city kids should be prepared for honors-level high school math, Moses - a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee - founded the Algebra Project, which uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education.
In Baltimore, the group's students established a safe source of income to maintain the program and to keep them off the streets during high school by creating a tutoring program in 2001, raising funds to pay older students to teach younger ones.
When their state funding was threatened, the students formed an Advocacy Committee, researched the issues behind the cuts, and, unconvinced of the necessity of the budget axe, met with community and faith leaders to successfully stop the cuts. Today, the Baltimore Algebra Project operates on a $500,000 budget from public and private sources, and is entirely run by young people under the age of 23.
Baltimore’s ninety thousand public school students are notoriously behind their peers in Maryland and the country. Many of the classes are too large for teachers to meet the needs of their pupils. Facilities, some dating to the 19th century, are in desperate need of repair, and many schools lack adequate heating and cooling. According to a recent ACLU report, almost $3 billion is required for necessary repairs.
While researching the school system’s budget woes in 2004, Algebra Project students learned about a long standing battle between the Baltimore Public School System, the City, and the State over school funding. A series of lawsuits alleged the State had been underfunding the City schools for a decade, and a court had ordered the State to pay $1.1 billion to the City, but the State never complied.
The Algebra Project has been agitating for the $1.1 billion for the last seven years. They engage in civil disobedience, leading well-organized marches that block traffic, student strikes and walk-outs, and creative street theatre to drive home their message: "No education, no life." Invest in education today, or condemn the next generation of kids.
Maryland Shaw, 22, first became active in the Algebra Project in middle school. When she went to college, she realized how far behind she was. “A lack of resources made it hard for me to keep up. Everything I was learning in college, I was supposed to learn in high school,” she says.
The Algebra Project’s work to highlight a lack of safe youth opportunities has put them at the forefront of a number of related issues, forming strong alliances with civil rights, labor, and faith groups. In 2008 the group occupied City Hall and went on a hunger strike to obtain funding for a thousand youth jobs. A year later it worked to halt cuts to Baltimore’s free student bus passes. Constantly campaigning, their actions often draw hundreds of participants and a large, wary police presence.
In 2009 two members were arrested and charged as adults, leading group members to focus on ending what some call the “School to Prison Pipeline”: a system of inadequate schooling and diminished expectations that attracts kids to crime and eventually prison.
Maryland is one of more than a dozen states where a juvenile accused of certain violent crimes is automatically charged as an adult. In 2010, the Algebra Project began a campaign against the State’s planned $104 million detention center, meant to hold those charged as adults. The new jail will house 180 juveniles, but critics say it is entirely unnecessary, as juvenile crime has decreased dramatically over the years. Independent studies say as little as 50 beds are needed to house those currently in the adult system, and current facilities can meet the need.
More than two dozen groups formed a coalition against the jail, and last October the Algebra Project’s ranks swelled as dozens of Occupy Baltimore members joined their actions. 'We have to stop young people from going to prison, and we have to stop building prisons," Shaw says. “There have to be alternatives, more money put into schools, into recreational centers, programs that lend themselves to youth needs, instead of predicting their failures." Shaw says the new prison is being pushed by developers and those that profit from a prison-industrial complex. "They are gonna make sure they fill those empty beds," she says.
Jabreria Handy, 20, spent 11 months in adult prison awaiting trial after being charged with involuntary manslaughter at 17. When she was released, she joined Just Kids, a group that works to end the charging of juveniles as adults. “It is stupid to spend money on a jail we don’t need,” she says.
On January 16th the coalition started a week-long occupation of the prison site, but were dispersed by police and several arrests. Daily civil disobedience and teach-ins continued, and last week the State released its budget for next year and it did not include funding for the prison.
Students from the Algebra Project continue to remain vigilant though, having witnessed years of false promises from political leaders they say are banking on their failure. Regardless, the success of their efforts to date are just the freshest evidence of the power of grassroots protest and a testament to Bob Moses' vision.