“I Thought This U.S. Place Was Supposed To Be About Freedom”

Young Latinas engage in mathematics and social change to save their school

By Maura Varley Gutierrez

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

I sat and talked with a group of 5th-grade Latina girls, their voices filled with urgency and excitement. We were gathered for our twice weekly meeting of the after-school girls’ mathematics club at Agave Elementary School* in the U.S. Southwest. I was the facilitator of the group, conducting participatory research as a part of my graduate studies. The seven Latinas represented a range of mathematical abilities and confidence, as well as language skills (some bilingual in Spanish and English, some English dominant). On this particular January day, our usual opening activity of sharing stories from our lives turned to the subject of the school’s potential closure, which had been proposed by the school district the week before.

At a community meeting attended by several of us the evening before, the district officials laid out their argument for closing four schools, claiming that they used an objective, neutral, mathematical procedure for determining which schools to close. The girls’ discussion covered a variety of concerns about the potential impact of the closing on their community. “It’s not fair, though!” Zara insisted, drawing attention to what the school district left out of its arguments: the social impact of the school closings. This led to a heated discussion that included sharing personal stories and knowledge about the community, voicing concern for others, expressing disagreement with the district’s arguments, and suggesting ideas for how to save the school.

After a semester of building community within the group and investigating topics such as prison vs. education spending in our state, we had planned to explore school safety. However, given the news of the school closures, we shifted the club’s focus because, as Margarita reasoned, “What point is there to do school safety if there’s gonna be no school?”

Between January and the final school board vote in April, the Agave community mobilized to defend their neighborhood school—a school that had been attended by generations of primarily Latino families. Zara’s assertion that the closure was “not fair” seemed an ideal place to begin to push our conversation to how we might specifically use mathematics as a tool for participating in this mobilization. Our math-based participation in the community movement proved to be a powerful experience for both the girls and for me as an educator.

The Mathematical Investigations

The district argued that Agave was a good candidate to be closed because of its proximity to the proposed receiving school (1.3 miles) and its “underperforming” label based on standardized tests. When the girls questioned these arguments, I helped them shape their ideas into mathematical problems that they could solveThis evolved into a unique contribution to the community movement to save the school. We focused on alternative analyses of test score data and the school’s achievement label, and on the walk students would have to take to the new school.

During our discussion, the girls asked, “How can they say we are un[der]achieving?” I helped the girls break this broad question into smaller parts that could be solved by students with a range of mathematical experience. I provided the students with details about the district’s argument and introduced the girls to a district website with several years of test scores.

Zara decided to analyze test score data over time. She saw a trend toward improvement despite the school’s failure to meet NCLB goals. She also disaggregated the scores by gender in order to show a trend of higher test scores for girls. Then she and Alma worked together to represent these trends in a double bar graph. In a letter to a board member, Zara wrote, “As you can see, every year we keep going up or are almost the same. For example, 40.4 percent of the girls passed the AIMS test three years ago, and two years ago 54.3 percent of the girls passed the test. Three years ago 26.5 percent of boys passed the test, and two years ago 40.4 percent of boys passed the test. Please think about these things when you vote on Tuesday.” Margarita asked the board to put the test scores into a larger context. Referring to the strong partnership between Agave and the local community center, she noted that some schools “are really high [achieving on tests] and all, but do they have things that prevent kids from going to bad places, from doing bad things? Here [at Agave] we do.”

After finding alternative ways to evaluate Agave’s achievements, we examined the impact on the community of students attending a different school. The fact that all of Agave’s students would be transferred to a single school (Samota) was described by the district superintendent as “seamless.” The voices of community members and conversations in the girls’ group revealed that the move would be anything but seamless for the families of Agave. While busing would be provided for elementary aged students who lived more than 1.5 miles from their school, most of the students who lived close to Agave would be left without school-sponsored transportation.

The girls and I decided to investigate the walk to Samota in several ways. We took the walk between the two schools ourselves, timing our journey and documenting it with videos and photos. We walked 13 blocks in 40 minutes. Then we created a map to determine our rate for walking. Most of the girls began to test whether two minutes per block was a reasonable estimate. Some solved this by multiplying two times 13. Others used repeated addition by drawing a series of 13 connected rectangles to represent the blocks; they put a two in each rectangle to represent the minutes. When a rate of two minutes per block resulted in a total walking time of only 26 minutes, the girls tried three minutes per block. They found that rate resulted in a total walking time of 39 minutes, only one minute less than our actual time. Zara decided that the extra minute was accounted for by the time used to take pictures. Drawing on her experience, Zara argued that her solution was sensible.

Having been exposed to survey work related to the 2008 presidential primary elections, Margarita suggested we ask students “what they think about the school closing.” She then predicted, “I bet you it’s gonna be a high number” and suggested that “if you just ask a whole bunch of people, then we can say how much people agreed that it shouldn’t close.”

Alma suggested a second survey question: “How about we [ask about] the number of kids who walk to school, take the bus, and have their parents drive them to school?” The survey revealed that approximately half of the students who attended Agave walked to school, and walking was often their only available form of transportation. For many families, walking to Agave worked because it was a neighborhood school, while walking to the new downtown school would involve additional dangers and a significantly longer walk. Michelle described the walk by saying, “When we went to go take the walk it seemed pretty dangerous because of all of the construction sites. And some kids might go through there, and it might not be a pretty picture.”

We decided to also include a question that collected data on the location of students’ homes in order to calculate the average walking time it would take students to walk to the new school, using the rate we had determined from our walk. Michelle created a list of the intersections where students reported their homes were located. Then Margarita and Vane located these intersections on our wall map of the neighborhood, and all of the girls determined distances and calculated potential walking times to Samota based on the estimated walking rate. Following my suggestion, they used a line plot to represent the spread of all of the walking times.

In general, the structure of the mathematical problems involved multiple entry points and could be solved in a variety of ways, which invited participation from girls with varying levels of understanding of mathematical concepts. The mathematical skills included quantifying, determining rate, calculating percent, analyzing data, and determining an appropriate representation. The problems encouraged collaboration because of the many skills necessary to complete our complex tasks, including designing surveys and collecting, organizing, and representing large amounts of data. Vanessa described the importance of this collective mathematical activity: “When you work together and you find out what [a peer’s] strategy is, you might be interested in that one and you might find a new way to do it.” Having the whole group contribute to the counterarguments allowed for a collective sense of arguing against the closures. This supported the participation of all of the girls, rather than only those who tended to be successful in the traditional classroom.

People Together Make Such a Big Difference”

The girls participated in and contributed to a variety of aspects of the movement, including writing letters to board members, speaking at community forums, and attending board meetings. We shared the results of our mathematical investigations in a digital story that we produced and presented at a forum attended by 600 community members, including students, teachers, parents, business owners, and city and state officials. Although the district conducted this particular forum, the community organized a rally prior to the meeting that involved singing, speeches, and forming a human chain around the entire school. Having participated in events as a part of the larger community movement, the girls learned about the arguments of both sides. They saw community members participate, they spoke in front of the board members, and they saw how decisions were made. In effect, the girls learned about the system they sought to change.

It was apparent from the community forces that organized to defend this primarily working class, Latino community school that a vote to close the school could have negative political consequences for the elected board members. In April, despite intense pressure from the district superintendent, the board members ultimately voted not to close the schools. Margarita described what she learned from the project: “I learned that if you work together you can do something—you can make a difference. . . . I would say teamwork is important because people together make such a big difference, not just one person.”

Throughout their reflections and conversations, the girls expressed a sense of responsibility to give voice to younger students who might not otherwise have a say in the process. Once again, Margarita explained:

As 5th graders they say we’re role models and [as] role models, we should be able to help and speak up. It’s like you’re being a role model for so many people. And you’re showing them that if you speak up you can make a difference. . . . And then if [the possibility of school closure] ever comes across when we’re not in this school anymore and it happens again, they know what to do.

A Chance to Speak Your Mind”

Because this was one experience in these girls’ lives, I can make no claims of lasting influence; because it did not happen within their mathematics classroom, I cannot verify shifts in classroom learning. However, I am convinced that, as educators, we must continually find ways to give students experiences of this sort within classrooms and other educational settings. If the primary goal of education is to engage students to become active citizens prepared to participate in social change, then connecting classroom learning with community movements becomes essential.

Despite the implementation challenges in our increasingly restrictive educational environment, Margarita’s voice offers a window into the possibilities of critical education. She came to me one day in the middle of this journey and said that she needed to get her ideas out, writing the following: “I finally am in a group that gives you a chance to speak your mind when something very important is happening (which everyone should feel like they spoke their mind, but not everyone has experienced that yet. I finally have after nine years). I thought this U.S. place was supposed to be about freedom and people speaking what they felt.”

Maura Varley Gutiérrez taught at Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., and is currently a teacher educator at the University of Arizona, working with pre-service teachers to integrate issues of social justice and equity in elementary mathematics classrooms. This work was part of the research agenda of CEMELA (Center for the Mathematics Education of Latinas/os), supported by the National Science Foundation, grant ESI-0424983. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

*All names are changed to protect anonymity of research participants and research site.