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How to Build a Successful MATHCOUNTS Program

February 15, 2019

Editor’s note: Jeff Boyd was the coach of the 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009 National Championship State Teams from Texas. Below are his experiences and advice on how to build a thriving program. We were always grateful for Jeff’s contributions to his students and to other coaches. He passed away in 2017.

I currently coach the Mathcounts and TMSCA programs at First Colony Middle School and Fort Settlement Middle School in Sugar Land, Texas. I have been teaching and coaching in Fort Bend ISD for the last seven years. I was recruited from another district to start up an in-school Mathcounts program at First Colony.

building a successful mathcounts program

Their Mathcounts coach was an engineer who had a student on the team and volunteered his time. The school would not let him use the school so he had to do it at his house. He just kept bugging the principal about starting an in-school program. The problem was that none of the teachers at the school at the time wanted to take on the Mathcounts program. Finally the principal told the engineer to go and find a good Mathcounts coach and she would hire him. He approached me at one of our mini-competitions to see if I was interested and I said that it was a possibility.

When I was called by the principal I said that I would take the job but I wanted a stipend and a yearly budget so that I could do the job the way that it should be done. The first year I had to write curriculum and get it approved. The second year they gave me one class. I had a really good PR person in the administration that got us a lot of publicity and the program spread by word of mouth from parent to parent. The parents started asking to have their kids in the class because of the scope of the material that we were covering. The program was successful from the first year and it has just grown every year since. In seven years the program has grown from 45 students to approximately 150 students who take the class and another 30–45 who just attend the evening practices.

After three years the district re-zoned and my program was split down the middle with half staying at First Colony and the other half going to the new school, Fort Settlement. I asked the district to split my teaching assignment between the two schools so that I would not lose the kids that went to the other school. They had so many kids sign up for the program that I became a full-time contest math teacher with five full classes. Both schools continued to have tremendous success. When the schools split the administration gave me a budget at both schools so I had twice the money to use for my program.

When I was split between the two schools I found that I had to stop having practices right after school. One school always had a transportation problem. I started to have evening practices from 6:30 to 8:30 PM. That way the kids could go home, have supper and do some homework before they cam back to school for practice. We had practice at one school one week and the other school the next week. These evening practices had an added bonus in that several of the parents who were engineers started coming to practices and got interested in the program. They now come to every practice and travel with us to all our tournaments. The administration loved this, especially with the big push for parent involvement.

In the Houston area we have around four mini-competitions a year where the kids get to practice their competition skills. Our mini-competitions have around 180–225 students from around 18–23 schools. The only thing that we do differently is that during the team round the kids are mixed up so that you may have a team with kids from 4 different schools. That way the strong schools do not dominate everything and discourage beginners. It also enables the new and weaker kids to be paired with stronger kids and see how they work.

The engineers in our area supply the pizza and sodas free of charge for the kids and we give ribbons as awards. These contests really help because by the time that the real contest rolls around the kids know exactly what to expect and normally do not feel the extreme pressure that would be present if this was the one and only competition of the year.

My kids also compete in TMSCA which is Texas Math and Science Coaches Association. We compete in number sense, computer applications, math, and science. Between Mathcounts and TMSCA we go to 16–20 contests a year. The TMSCA enables my kids to win a lot of trophies, which keeps them around for the Mathcounts, which is a lot harder. We have raised enough money that the kids travel to all of the competitions by charter bus with air-conditioning and color televisions. It has become very competitive to get to go on a bus trip. I always make sure that I take sixth, seventh and eighth graders to every contest. I want to build the interest of the younger kids and prepare the older kids for Chapter and State.

Life has been good because I do not have to deal with standardized tests or department requirements. I just get to teach math. There are times that I just let the interests of the kids take us where ever it happens to takes us because the kids are interested in that specific topic at that time.

The kids who take my class are guaranteed an ‘A’ if they come to class prepared, attempt to do all the problems, even if they miss all of them, and do not become a discipline problem. That way it takes all the pressure off the kids to get a certain grade and they can just concentrate on the math. All I ask is that the kids try even if they never go to a contest. It is a success if the kids just learn to like math and not be afraid of it. So many times kids are told that they are just not good at math. If you tell anyone that enough times they will begin to believe you. I keep telling them that they can do this if they just try and don’t worry about competing with the whiz kids. . . just compete with yourself. If you got three out of 30 last week, this week try for five out of 30. Great things can be accomplished by repeated small steps and gains.

I think the main reason that I got such tremendous support from my administrators was because of the parents. Before I was recruited my school had a large Asian population that did not play sports, sing or belong to the band or orchestra programs but they were very good at math and wanted to compete. There was a built-in need to have a good Mathcounts program to help get the vocal parents off of the administrations back.

The class and the program have become so successful that we now have a tradition of excellence just like any school that is good at athletics has except ours is a tradition of academic excellence.

If I was starting a new Mathcounts program I would approach the administration about starting a local elective—number sense, contest math, whatever you want to call it, just as long as you get a platform—to introduce the Mathcounts material. Once you get your foot in the door it’s a lot easier ask for things. Start small and gradually work your way up. Add only those things that you feel comfortable with and that you have the time for. Hopefully your program will reach a point where you will need more that one class. When that happens, you have arrived. Keep improving and adding things to your program and the program will increase in size and ability.

Things that you can do to help your program:

  • At every practice have something to eat. This is the number one thing to get them to come. Feed them and they will come. Parents can also help with this by making cookies and rice crispy treats and the like.
  • Take lots of pictures and post them in your room or on a bulletin board. If you go to contests always have a morning announcement.
  • Put pictures into Powerpoint presentations that they kids can see and that you can show parents at Open House. This can help to recruit other parents to help.
  • Get the kids involved in as many paper contests as you can afford or can handle. (ASMA, Math League, Sigma, CML, AMC 8, AMC10, etc.)
  • Take pictures of the winners to post and make sure that their results always end up in the school paper at the least.
  • Try to find a good contact person at the local paper who can help you get articles and pictures in the paper. The more the better. It increases parent awareness of your program.
  • Have some practices where the parent and the students come in and work together. This will help you identify parents who have the ability to help you at practices. A lot of the parents are very good at math, especially those that are in technical fields.
  • Find out if you have any parents who work for ExxonMobil. That company has a great program that gives your program $500 per quarter for every 20 volunteer hours that parents or their family members put into your program. This can add up to thousands of dollars. (Editor’s note: Many companies do this—ask your students’ parents!)
  • Find out if you have any parents who work for companies that matching programs. If a parent donates $100, their company matches it.
  • Design a team shirt with a team logo or saying and have the names of your sponsors put on the back. Free advertising for the sponsors when you travel.
  • Always be thinking of new things that you can do keep the interest in your program increasing. Play logic games like chess, Stratego, or any other game that forces them to think.
  • I have the kids bring in all the trophies that they have won during the year. We put them on display during the year and then at the end of the year we have an awards banquet where all the team’s accomplishments are put on display. I make a 40–50 minute Powerpoint show from all the pictures that I have taken throughout the year, put music to it and then invite parents, principals, administrators and also company representative that I want to try and get money from in the form of donations. This year we displayed over 750 trophies. We had several hundred dollars worth of donations and I was able to recruit a couple of local companies to sponsor us next year.
  • I have found that the easiest way to get company sponsorship is through the spouse of an employee. They can normally direct you to the right person the first time. You can also call the companies. They all have some section that is responsible for community involvement. It is also better to actually go to the company and talk with the person face to face. It makes it a lot harder to say no to a face than to an email. I usually put together a presentation folder with the highlights of what the programs have accomplished and how we are going to use the donation. I also stress to them that we will be getting a lot of articles and pictures that they can use in their PR department throughout the year.

I think that you have to work hard. I think you have to put in the time necessary to get better but I also know the kids have to have fun and enjoy what they are doing so that they want to come to practice on a regular basis.

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