Despite the perfect summer weather, more than 50 middle and high school students gathered inside the walls of F.W. Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Florida for their fourth consecutive week of competitive math practice. Yes, you read that correctly – competitive math.
When ExcelinEd visited the school last July, students were hard at work practicing for the upcoming Mu Alpha Theta National Championship later that month. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Buchholz was not only the returning national champion, they had won the last ten consecutive competitions. During the last decade, this Alachua County magnet program has defeated hundreds of private and public schools in what is the largest math honors society in the U.S. with nearly 100,000 members.
Today, the school’s name is synonymous with high standards and academic success. But, the math program’s road to victory hit a rough patch early on.
“There was a flyer in my box about a math competition,” recounted math program director and Buchholz High School educator Will Frazer. “I was teaching Algebra II Honors at the time and I asked some of my kids if they wanted to go to a math competition.”
There were seven teams at the event that day. Buchholz High School placed seventh.
“On the way home, the kids asked if they could practice and do it again,” said Frazer. Buchholz students practiced for the next month and at their second competition in the spring of 1999 they placed fifth out of seven teams. That small improvement encouraged the students to continue improving.
On the way home from that second event, Frazer began to envision the program he would need to create to serve the highest performing students so they could compete with their state and national peers.
“I knew that if I was going to do this, I had to retrain,” said Frazer. “As a teacher you train for the classroom and what you have to present. The curriculum and the competition were well above the honors level that I was teaching.”
The results have been nothing short of remarkable.
What’s unique about the Buchholz program is how Frazer and assistant coach Ziwei Lu combine rigorous expectations with a non-traditional approach. In 2014, the Alachua County Public Schools created a summer program where the high school math team teaches pre-algebra concepts to middle schoolers from across the district. The program, run by Frazer, benefits the older students by allowing them to teach advanced math formulas and strategies to the younger students.
All the while, middle schoolers who have shown an interest in math can hone their skills and learn more about the programs the high school provides.
“The one thing about this math team program is that it has taught me how to be passionate about hard work,” said Buchholz Senior Arjun Panicker. “The math team has also taught me how to work with others.”
Both programs are free to students and their families thanks to Alachua County Public Schools. Frazer and his teachers specifically work to find students who may have been overlooked for more rigorous programs.
“We are trying to reach the whole school district with an extra emphasis on students from lower-income families who just don’t have the resources to get their kids into competitive math programs,” said Frazer.
Frazer has dozens of success stories in this area, including a student who now attends MIT. “His three older siblings had all dropped out of high school, but this student is one of the smartest kids we have ever had come through the program.” Many of the students were thankful for the math program and how it improved their high school experience and future success in college.
The entire school has embraced the idea that high expectations lead to academic improvement. Parents waiting at the front office are greeted with display cases featuring Advanced Placement test results and the school’s grade – an A. Those items along with a large, prominent banner touting the math team’s title wins emphasize the school’s commitment to academic success.
“I’m 58 and I could probably keep doing this until I am 80,” Frazer laughed as he talked about how much he enjoyed working with the students. If this incredible program continues for another 20 years, the school district will need to invest in a massive trophy case.
However, the students don’t seem to mind the dozens of two and three-foot tall trophies that take up the extra space at the back of the classroom. Their attention is focused on the complex equations on the white board.
*The Buchholz H.S. math team placed second at the Mu Alpha Theta Championship in July 2017. The team is in early preparation to regain the title of nation’s top mathematics team this summer. You can follow the Buchholz High School on Twitter at @BuchholzHigh.