Not so long ago, students in USD 500, the Kansas City, KS Unified School District, were performing poorly in math. USD 500 is the fifth-largest school district in Kansas and home to more than 20,000 students, with the majority of them being Black. Now, the students are performing much better in math; thanks, in part, to the math relays.

The 13th Annual Math Relays were held March 4 at Wyandotte High School, Kansas City, Kansas. It’s a competition for students in USD 500, and more than 1,100 elementary, middle, and high school students competed for medals and prizes in this year’s event Nearly 50% of participating students were Black.

The event began in 2004 as an idea to help boost students’ low math scores. Jarius Jones, who at the time was a teacher at Wyandotte, brought the idea for having the Relays to KCK.

“When I came into the district [in 2001] we were at single-digit performances on state [math] assessments. One school was at 2%,” said Jones. In other words, at that school, only 2 in 100 students could solve math problems at grade level.

A Bright Idea

In 2003 Jarius and Cecil Christwell, also a teacher at Wyandotte, took eight Wyandotte students to compete in Pittsburg State University’s math relays. Wyandotte’s team didn’t fare well. According to Jarius, “We got beat pretty good.” The students returned home dejected, but Jarius was excited. He knew competition is an excellent motivator, and he envisioned using math relays to motivate the district’s students to work harder in math.

Right after the trip to Pittsburg, Jones and Christwell started work on the first KCK math relays. They worked with Mary Stewart, who at the time was their instructional coach. (Stewart is now Wyandotte’s principal.) They also received the support of then Wyandotte Principal Walter Thompson and Dr. Cynthia Lane, who was at the time asst. superintendent, and now superintendent, of USD 500. Lane assure Jones the school district would pay for all of the event’s expenses, and the duo were off and running.

KCK’s first math relays was held at Wyandotte High School on a snowy Saturday in February 2004. There were 450 middle and high school participants. The competitive format then is pretty much the same now. Students answer questions from four math standards: algebra, geometry, number sense (understanding how values behave and understanding computation of problems) and data (analyzing data that is written or in graphs).

Students compete individually and in teams of four in relays and medleys. In a relay one student from each team works on a problem for five minutes before handing it off to a teammate who does the same. This continues until the fourth team member is finished, or until time expires. In a medley, the team members work together on each problem.

Each year, the relays have grown in popularity: 600 middle and high school students participated in the second year, 900 in the third, more than 1,000 in the fourth, and nearly 1200 this year. In 2014, the field was expanded to include 4th and 5th graders.

Math Relays have become a big deal. Each competition starts with an opening ceremony, and there is usually a dignitary in attendance. The mayor, school superintendent, and school board president have all attended. Marching bands perform, and relay participants are affectionately called “mathletes.”

Jones beams with pride when he says there is so much cheering and yelling at the medal ceremonies—it sounds like you’re at a football or basketball game!

Positive Results

District-wide math scores are trending upward. Students were at 3% proficiency in math in1996. Scores were up to 40% proficiency in 2005 and 69% in 2011.

“I can’t attribute math relays to the higher scores,” Jones said, “but I think it [math relays] may have had something to do with those gains.” A former Mathlete agrees.

Brooke Lynn Long, a sophomore at Johnson County Community College and a Wyandotte graduate, competed in the relays as a 7th and 8th grader at Arrowhead Middle School. She also served as a relay volunteer during her Junior Year at Wyandotte High School. She admits she wasn’t strong in math at Arrowhead, but like many of her classmates, she looked forward to the relays.

“Math relays helped me gain an interest in math, and it was a fun way to compete with classmates and earn extra credit” noted Long. “I’m still not great at math, but I’m not afraid of it like I used to be. I’m confident enough to pursue a career in medicine.”

In math, American students are well behind students in other nations, and as a group, African-American students are the poorest performers in math in our nation. Addressing this problem is imperative, so much so that the Department of Education under the Obama administration prioritized improving American student’s performance in math, science and technology.

“In a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, where success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know, it’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information. These are the types of skills that students learn by studying science, technology, engineering, and math—subjects collectively known as STEM.” From the Obama’s U.S. Department of Education.

Several of the key components the Department of Education’s strategies for improving student math performance include:

1. Increasing and sustaining public and youth engagement with STEM;

2. Improving the STEM experience for undergraduate students; and

3. Better serving groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields. i.e. African Americans.

The math relays, started by Jarius Jones, is exactly the kind of engaging math program President Obama was hoping for. Jones’ program has improved the math experience for KCK students. Math relays are a program making a difference in USD 500.

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