Dad puzzled by approach to math, English

"This curriculum is the most horrific thing," says Osiris Harrell, whose youngest children are in elementary school.

By Linda Borg
Journal Staff Writer

The Providence, RI, Journal January 17, 2006

PROVIDENCE -- Osiris Harrell is a child of the '60s, but he never considered himself a rebel until his children began coming home from school empty-handed.

Where, he wondered, were their textbooks? Why weren't his children learning how to diagram a sentence? And why weren't they memorizing their times tables?

"At first, I thought it was a mistake," the 44-year-old father of four said Friday. "Then, I started volunteering in the school. I noticed that the children weren't bringing home any regular homework."

No longer, he said, were teachers correcting his children's writing and sending it home so Harrell could review it. And when the report cards arrived, he discovered that letter grades had been replaced by a 1-4 numbering system.

Harrell said, "It's all so confusing."

He was even more distressed by the district's approach to teaching math: a program that asks students to develop critical-thinking skills by looking at multiple ways of solving a problem.

"They are no longer teaching math in the traditional sense," he said. "You know what I mean, teaching multiplication and long division? The system that's been in place for 100 years or more?

"I'm an educated man and I don't understand it," said Harrell, who lives on Federal Hill and peppers his conversations with references to philosophers such as Kant and Hegel. "If teachers have to go back to school to learn this new system, imagine what it must be like for parents who don't speak the language?"

Last week, Harrell, who is president of the West Broadway Elementary School's parent-teacher organization, began circulating a petition that asks the school district to present evidence showing that these new methods actually work.

Harrell has obtained 200 signatures and hopes to gather 800 more before presenting the petition to School Supt. Donnie Evans and Mayor David N. Cicilline.

"This curriculum is the most horrific thing," he said. "I don't understand how a child could be promoted to the fourth grade with no understanding of sentence structure, with no idea of how language works."

The school district adopted Math Investigations in 2003, during Supt. Diana Lam's tenure in Providence. She appointed a committee of faculty members to study which instructional model would be most effective while meeting state and federal standards, according to school spokeswoman Maria Tocco.

Harrell said that he buys his own grammar and math books and tutors his children -- Zada, 9; Elijah, 8; and Zaria, 7 -- at home. (He has an older child who has graduated from high school.)

Harrell says that some teachers agree with his criticisms. Referring to one of his children's teachers, he said: "If she were allowed to teach in the traditional way, she would be wonderful, but she says her hands are tied.

"I asked her, 'How do you like having to educate children using this method?' and she said, 'I don't like it and I'm not the only one.' "

Harrell said he is passionate about his children's education because he realizes that it's their only hope for success. But he worries that there are two education systems in America: the private schools, which, he says, turn out tomorrow's leaders, and the public schools, which he says produce tomorrow's servants.

"In order for all children to have a level playing field," he said, "we as parents have to become more conscientious. We have to know our rights when it comes to educating our children."

Harrell's childhood wasn't easy. He grew up in the segregated South. When Harrell was 11 years old, his family moved to Rhode Island, and, for the first time, he attended school with white students.

Harrell graduated from Hope High School and later joined the Army. But his life didn't follow a smooth trajectory.

"I went astray," he said. "I got in trouble with law. Not having a father was tough. But because I had a strong mother, she instilled enough in me. That's why I am who I am today."

Harrell found the right woman, and that, he said, has made all the difference. Today, he drives a machine that crushes boulders for a sand and gravel company. But he has never been intimidated by fancy titles or advanced degrees.

"I judge people by their character," he said, "by what's in their hearts."

His dream is to give parents a voice, to encourage families to make a difference in their children's education.

"I'm not looking for any kind of glory," he said. "If I can inspire my kids to stand up so that they will one day become leaders, I'll be ecstatic."

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