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Pitt Education’s Ready to Learn program empowers middle schoolers to use math for social change

  • Community Impact
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Teaching & Learning
  • School of Education

When Cassandra Brentley meets new students and mentors in the Ready to Learn program, she gives them a quick assignment.

"I ask them what a 'math person' looks like and to do a Google search to find a picture."

Most kids in the Center for Urban Education (CUE) after-school and summer math program are students of color, and the photos they find seldom reflect people who look like them. "It's usually an Albert Einstein-looking person," Brentley said.

As the program manager for Ready to Learn, Brentley's mission is to change students' perceptions of their abilities and enhance their math literacy.

"Relationship-building is critical in the design of our program, and empowering students to understand they can do anything — that they are math people and that we'll help them," she said.

The grant-funded research-practice partnership supports middle school students in the Pittsburgh region and is one of three ongoing CUE projects that Brentley manages within Pitt’s School of Education. The program currently aids four public middle schools.

"Algebra is considered a gatekeeper subject, so we understand the urgency of math literacy for all children," said Brentley, who joined Pitt in 2019. "It's important for the trajectory of their learning and future access and options to be strong math learners. Our goal is to ensure students are prepared to take an Algebra 1 course by eighth grade." 

Learning from a leader in the field

In summer 2019 Brentley, with encouragement from Laura Roop, director of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Education, attended the Math Literacy for All National Alliance Planning Conference in Washington, D.C.

There, she met a man whose name she'd heard throughout her academic and professional career and whose work would directly influence Ready to Learn.

"Bob Moses' name kept coming up," Brentley said.

Moses was the creator of The Algebra Project, a national U.S. mathematics literacy program aimed at supporting math learning among low-income students and students of color. In addition to founding a spin-off program, the Young People's Project, Moses was an educator and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement. The design principles of both projects, which include connecting learning strategies with equity issues, have guided CUE’s Ready to Learn program.

Roop, too, had befriended Moses in the 2000s while working as outreach director at University of Michigan School of Education and continued working with him over the years.

"Bob was trying to get allied people across the country to push for quality education as a constitutional right," said Roop.

Brentley was deeply impacted by her meeting with Moses and his team.

"It was inspirational to see how they were making the learning accessible, relevant and translating it into ways that students understood,” she said. “At the moment, I didn't realize the magnitude of what I had the opportunity to be a part of, but coming back to Pitt and Ready to Learn, we began revamping what our program would look like."

On Jan. 27 of this year, CUE held a webinar to celebrate the life and legacy of Moses, who died in July 2021, as part of its Lunch and Learn series.

“The Center for Urban Education is grateful for the relationships that have made the Ready to Learn program successful, even in a time of COVID,” said T. Elon Dancy II, executive director of CUE and Helen S. Faison Chair of Urban Education at the Pitt School of Education. “The Bob Moses Memorial Lunch and Learn not only allowed us to honor his ongoing contributions at the intersections of math and justice, but to reflect on principles of learning for collective freedom, teaching math through lived experiences and youth collaboration. This event reflects this year’s theme, Practices of Freedom, and our overall mission of structural change in education settings.”

At the ready

At Brentley's arrival, the Ready to Learn pilot program launched with 10 students. Now, it annually retains nearly 20 mentors for 80 students. All participants are compensated for their time.

"The Young People's Project, which trains, employs and supports high school students to become math literacy workers, made compensation a key point," said Roop. "They said you've got to pay the math literacy workers for them to become knowledge workers and to understand better the realities that young people are living with."

The Ready to Learn curriculum also emphasizes the connection between math and real-world problems through the incorporation of social justice math.

"I wanted to help students solve equations but also apply that knowledge to the real world to question and engage what's going on around us critically," said Brentley. Moses also championed this idea.

"In my opinion, Moses is the pioneer in terms of thinking about mathematics education and mathematics literacy as a civil right," said Kari Kokka, assistant professor of mathematics education in Pitt’s School of Education and a former mathematics teacher activist in New York City. She met Moses in 2007.

"He's been an inspiration to so many math educators and was so much about community, uplifting and seeing the strengths of others, that is important when thinking about community organizing work,” Kokka said.

Though Kokka has since stepped away from Ready to Learn to focus on her research and teaching, she helped initiate social justice math ideas for the program's curriculum. Together, she, Brentley and others sought to make projects relatable to students.

Carmen Thomas-Browne, a School of Education instructor, now leads the math curriculum design for the program. So far, using data from their actual schools, students have studied everything from discipline inequality in school suspensions, to the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, to wage inequality in the fast food industry, and many other social justice topics. Inspired by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, they also analyzed the cost and quality of water in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

"We need everybody in the fight for social justice," said Kokka. "Kids are struggling because the system is set up to make it unattainable and difficult."

Brentley agreed, noting, "that's another interesting dynamic of our program — it's personalized and customized to students' needs."

"To prepare young people to teach in this world, we need them working alongside groups that have been in the struggle for a long time and the struggle exists in education,” said Roop. “That is at the front of the civil rights struggle"


— Kara Henderson