There is a crisis with middle school kids failing at math, which leads to a “public school-to-prison pipeline,” but Lybroan James has a formula for a solution.

James is the Chief Education Officer of STEMulate Learning, based in Los Angeles and he said the reason so many people fear math is not because of the subject, but because of the teacher. The traditional classroom setup is part of a “school-to-prison pipeline” that afflicts students and communities across America. But that pathway can be broken, James said.

The Harvard-educated James who has devoted his life to teaching STEM subjects — in particular, the dreaded subject of math — said a new approach needs to be taken in pedagogy.

“I coach math teachers on how to be good teachers,” James said. “It’s about being able to relate to the students. Unfortunately the higher the IQ of the teacher, often, the lower the EQ they have. They can’t relate to the students who don’t understand math. And it’s not a race thing. It’s a cultural thing.”

The school-to-prison pipeline occurs when kids fail, they are often demeaned for not knowing the right answer and it demoralizes them, creating resentment on both sides.

“All math is universal, but how you learn is cultural,” James said. “If the cultural lens doesn’t vibe with you, you’re not going to like it. I use this example: I like jazz music. If I go in the store and I hear jazz my shopping is nicer. But at the grocery store, they’re playing heavy metal it’s not the best experience for me. The teachers are not playing the right music.”

Eric Johnson, Director of Partnerships and Collaborations for Stars at the Lake Ave. Church, said there is a critical need for those who are able to to pitch in, especially if they live near a middle school.

“As a trusted partner in the Pasadena Unified School District, we were asked if we could partner in doing a math recovery center at our site so we can prepare them to be graduation-ready,” Johnson said. “Recognizing this is a crisis, this all seems to start in third fourth and fifth grade we decided we would call a state of emergency in bringing in caring adults to help.”

“Whether your organization is a church, a non profit or you’re concerned citizens, if you’re in walking distance to any of the middle schools we’re asking people to partner to reduce these numbers of children failing in math,” Johnson said.

Johnson explained the school to prison pipeline. He said failing at school subjects causes a mindset that the students need to look for another avenue in order to survive.

“The students are looking for another way to live outside of getting an education and it will be a life of crime and a perfect example,” he said. “We’re aware there’s a growing number of homeless students and families. They don’t want to be classified as homeless so they hide. They’re on the street, in a car, going house to house so they can graduate with their class. We know of students stealing. ”

The Pasadena Police Department is also aware of the education issue and has several initiatives, said Lt. Bill Grisafe, Pasadena PD PIO.

The Police Department is extremely interested in keeping school aged kids on the “straight and narrow” and offers a variety of resources to prevent the referenced “school to prison pipeline.”

“The Pasadena Police Department firmly believe that all youth are assets to our community and serve as the future generation,” Grisafe said. “The Police Department has formed a partnership with the Pasadena Activities League (P.A.L) to assure their success through programs and activities to help youth in our community develop skills that build self-esteem and encourage them to reach their full potential.

The P.A.L. program is a year round program designed to give community children a safe program to attend after school and during the summer.

“The Police Explorer program is another opportunity for kids who may be interested in a future career in Law Enforcement,” he said. “The program exposes the youth to the different aspects of police work, while teaching a sense of discipline for their personal life.”

James said many people actually fear math because of the classroom experience, where they may have been belittled in front of the room because they got an answer wrong.

“Everybody plays video games and you lose and have to keep trying until you get to another level,” James said. “Then you lose some more and you finally get to the next level. You learn by being wrong. In math, you’re supposed to be wrong. But in most classrooms, you’re put down for being wrong.”

James said the traditional teaching approach puts one person at the head of the class and it’s a tug of war with students who don’t want to do the math work.

“But as a math teacher you have to give your ego up,” he said. “With kids, when you focus on building a relationship, they will want to knock down a wall for you.”

James incorporates social aspect into the instruction.

He will often use common sense and tell the kids that being good at math may help the kids interact, especially if the apple of someone’s eye needs tutoring help.

Or he will put them in a group to “figure it out” and when the group can’t come up with solutions, it’s at that point that he will give the kids the clues they need. And once the light bulb goes off, it’s all worth it, James said.

“I don’t teach the kids math, I teach the emotional response to math,” he said. “We go in and we work directly with students to change their mindset. This is why I’m so passionate about this.”