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The Boston Globe, Tuesday, November 7, 2000

Eye on Education

The Globe's Eye on Education series focuses on education overhaul

Program Targets Classroom Gender Gap

Equity in math, science is goal

By Anand Vaishnav

A quick peek into Toni Harrison's kindergarten class at the Blue Hill Avenue Early Education Center in Roxbury reveals nothing out of the ordinary.

Her 16 pupils work on counting skills while sitting in four small groups, writing their answers with crayons grasped in their chubby hands. Harrison moves among the tables to help, and afterward, she asks pupils to explain their work in front of their peers.

But there's more to it. Boys and girls are sitting together, instead of self-segregating in groups of just boys or just girls, as younger children often do. And Harrison tries to draw responses from her quieter pupils, boys and girls alike. Most important, she said, the pupils are working with each other.

"If they're counting wrong, one of the kids will point that out to them and recount it," Harrison said. "They're sharing ideas."

That's no accident. Harrison is among the first Boston public school teachers to use a unique grant aimed at bridging gender achievement gaps - including increasing girls' participation in math and science.

This is the second year of the $250,000 grant, awarded to public schools in Boston and Cambridge by the Caroline and Sigmund Schott Foundation, a philanthropic foundation in Cambridge. The Education Development Center in Newton is coordinating the grant and providing teacher training, said Susan J. Smith, the grant's project director.

In Boston, the initiative is concentrated in seven elementary schools in "Cluster 7," all located in Dorchester and Roxbury. This fall marked the first year of the grant for Cluster 7 schools.

The MCAS exam scores of those elementary schools trail the district's scores when it comes to mathematics, a big focus of the grant. About 54

percent of the fourth-graders in Cluster 7 failed the math portion of the state-required MCAS test, compared with 44 percent of the district.

The grant's impact will be measured by comparing scores of students who were in the program against those who weren't.

The goal of gender equity sounds fuzzy, but it can be as simple as tweaking classroom teaching. Harrison calls on boys and girls equally when she asks them to stand in front of their class and explain their counting work.

That method promotes confidence - rather than the more typical scenario of the teacher asking for who wants to show their work, which encourages talkative pupils to raise their hands, but ignores quieter ones.

Building pupils' confidence in math early - especially girls - will help them down the road, educators said. Although about three-fourths of jobs over the next few years will require the use of computers, only one-third of students in computer courses and related activities are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"At this level, we're creating habits that children need for the rest of their lives," said Valerie Gumes, principal of the Blue Hill Avenue Early Education Center. "If we don't engage kids in a manner that's open, they learn from us."

The existence of a gap between boys and girls in achievement is hotly debated. A federal study released in April showed that girls are faring as well as or better than boys in schools, although they lag behind boys in math and science achievement. But critics have said the problem is largely imagined, and that shifting the focus to girls shortchanges boys.

Harrison, a 14-year veteran, said her philosophy is to make sure both boys and girls aren't hemmed in by stereotypes of how they're supposed to act - or what careers they're supposed to follow.

"I try to create an environment where everyone does everything," Harrison said.


Bridging the math gap

Twenty-four schools in Boston and Cambridge are involved in the Gender Healthy Schools Project aimed at boosting math and science achievement. In Boston the seven schools that are the focus of the project look like this:

Students: 3,541 in grades K-5.

Racial makeup: African-American, 68 percent; Latino, 19 percent; Asian, 8 percent; white, 5 percent.

Number eating a free or reduced-price lunch: 75 percent.

MCAS failure rate for fourth grade math: 1998,66 percent; 1999, 54 percent

Eye on Education is a partnership of WGBH and The Boston Globe, with WILD 1090AM.