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How an underdog math team beat City Honors

Part of this story is engraved in brass. On an ordinary-looking trophy that catapulted an underdog crew of eighth-graders to greatness and reduced a grown man to tears, are engraved the words HOUGHTON ACADEMY. The names of prior winners are engraved on the trophy, too. In the past five years, only one other school has ever won the Buffalo City Schools Middle School Math League: City Honors.

How did this happen? How did a Buffalo public school with an 85 percent poverty rate and a 45 percent minority population groom a set of math geeks capable of defeating the most elite school in the district?

How have seventh- and eighth-graders at a regular school like Houghton managed to do nearly twice as well on state math exams than the district average?

Therein lies a great story.

As a new school year gets under way, the story of the 2013 Math League champions provides a source of hope and inspiration for how one good teacher can change everything.

The class

Almost all eyes in a room filled with nearly 30 eighth-graders are following the man in the red shirt and dark bow tie. They watch as Keith Wiley shifts from side to side and walks up and down rows of desks calling out equations of exponential numbers.

The agenda is up on the white board – seven tough math topics to cover in 1½ hours.

Hands shoot up.

“No, you’re wrong!” Wiley says when one student answers.

More hands rise, undeterred.

“Oh, so close, and yet so far,” he tells another.

That’s the pattern. One question, lots of answers.

Students volunteer or Wiley calls on them. He might make up a story to explain a math problem, or break into song. He replaced the equation 2 pi r for the original lyrics of “Kum Ba Yah” to help students remember how to calculate the circumference of a circle.

His pace never falters, except for brief moments when Wiley stops in front of one student’s desk or another to make sure everyone is keeping up.

“You understand what you’re doing?” he asks one boy. “No? OK, you’ve come to the right place.”

There’s a reasonable chance he’ll see that student at lunch or after school. Wiley is planted in his classroom at both times of day to make sure the kids who are falling behind have one-on-one time to catch up.

It would be easy to fall behind.

Wiley teaches all seventh- and eighth-graders at Houghton. That’s about 100 kids. Interspersed among them are several special-education students, though there’s no way to tell just by watching his class which ones they are.

What’s more, Wiley’s eighth-grade class doesn’t just learn eighth-grade math. Unlike other schools that place only their high achievers in advanced math classes, every eighth-grader at Houghton is also taught ninth-grade math.

That means Wiley teaches every one of them algebra.

Last school year, nearly half of his eighth-graders – 24 students – sat for the ninth-grade Regents algebra exam. Twenty-two of them passed, including his entire Math League team.

The teacher

Wiley may have been born to be a math teacher, but he didn’t know it until he was 46.

Early in his adult life, he helped operate a venture capital firm. After that, he said, he became vice president of strategic investment for Goldome Bank.

Then he got divorced and found himself a single parent for two young girls. He shifted gears and began doing consulting work from home.

“When the money ran out, I said, ‘I need a job,’ ” he recalled.

So Wiley approached Debra Sykes, the district’s math director at the time, and asked about starting an after-school math tutoring program. Sykes told him there wasn’t any money to fund a tutoring program, but the district was desperately in need of math teachers. Would he like to be one?

That’s how Wiley, a man with no teaching certification or classroom experience started work at Houghton Academy in 2000. He was one of about half a dozen people – including a bartender and a carpet salesman – the district hired to teach math during a statewide shortage of math teachers.

Surprisingly, all but one – who held a doctorate in mathematics – turned out to be great.

“It was my philosophy at the time that, if you liked children and cared about children, and had a math background, we could teach them the skills to be math teachers,” Sykes said.

Wiley, now 58, picked up his teaching certification in 2004 and has remained at Houghton his entire teaching career. The school, which serves children in prekindergarten through eighth grade, has same-gender classes in grades five through eight.

For many of these students, the principal said, Wiley is the closest thing they have to a male role model in their lives.

“The students love him,” Principal Elaine Vandi-Kirkland said. “Even when they leave here, they always come back here to see Mr. Wiley.”

When Wiley suffered a stroke in July and lost some peripheral vision, his kids reached out by phone and text. He got better.

He spends his summer teaching algebra to underprivileged freshmen at the University at Buffalo, and during the regular school year, he teaches aspiring math teachers at Medaille College how to do what he does.

Wiley’s success is in his creativity and flexibility, said Lori Reese, a co-teacher in Wiley’s class who provides assistance to students who need extra help.

“He doesn’t have one way of doing things,” she said. “He tries to relate it to their lives. He adapts it to anybody and anything possible. And he’s comical, too. There’s not a boring moment in that classroom.”

The competition

Wiley held up a photo of his championship team. It was taken shortly after the team was named district champs at a lunchtime banquet event held at Casa di Pizza in May.

Nine members of his 10-member team are pictured, representing nearly every color and gender, from head scarf to high tops.

“I love this picture,” he said.

These were the students who beat the previously undefeated City Honors team, a school with high admissions standards, where fewer than 30 percent of students are considered poor and two-thirds of them are white.

Last school year, nine schools participated in the district’s Middle School Math League competition.

The competition consists of three sets of 10 questions. One set is distributed to each participating school every month from January to March. Math coaches can offer problem-solving guidance, but the students must come up with the answers.

Here’s an example:

If 2n - 2(3m - 4) = 12 and n - 6 = 5m, what is the numerical value of 3m + n?

(The answer is -10.)

Completed packets are returned and scored for individual school winners, as well as the districtwide school champions.

Wiley’s students ranked first, second, fourth and fifth of all league participants.

The team

This past week, five members of the original math team returned to Wiley’s classroom.

Before these students met Wiley, most of them were avowed math haters.

“I always found math extremely difficult and useless,” said Olivia Kaetzel, now a 14-year-old freshman at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School.

She attended City Honors for 2½ years before transferring to Houghton. She was used to being one of the smartest in elementary school, but she said her confidence was shattered as a City Honors student.

She regained her self worth in Wiley’s class and left Houghton in June as the school’s salutatorian.

“Keith Wiley: Making things easy and fun since birth,” she quipped.

Lamont Senior Jr., 13, almost failed math in sixth grade. Now a freshman at DaVinci High School, he still remembers Wiley’s song for the equation that solves the volume of a cylinder.

“He answered the question every teenager asks,” Lamont said. “Why did we need to know this?”

Zahoor Ali, 14, said she used to hate math before she had Wiley, and she doesn’t like it any better now that she’s in high school. But she loved it when she had Wiley.

“He cared,” she said.

Peter Newsham, 14, was one of the few students who professed to always liking math. After having Wiley as his teacher, though, he ramped up and started doing Regents practice exams over the summer for fun.

Now he thinks he might want to be a math teacher when he grows up. That or a demolitions man.

Then there’s Rico Smalls. He came to Wiley’s class two years behind grade level, after falling behind when he was temporarily placed in foster care as a young boy.

He didn’t like Wiley at all at first. He described his own position as: “Shut up, leave me alone or fight me.”

Wiley didn’t kick Rico out of class. Instead, they talked. They compared notes about their personalities, their tempers and the many ways the two were similar.

Rico didn’t give Wiley trouble after that. He grew up. He became a better student, and when his brother lost his legs after being run over by a train, Rico made sure his wheelchair-bound brother got to school every day.

He finished with the second-highest score in the Middle School Math League. Now 16 and a freshman at DaVinci, Rico continues to do well at school and is expected to graduate from high school on time.

The future

It’s not all sweetness and light at Houghton. The Clinton Street school is a struggling school by state standards, even though it has made great strides since the early days when Wiley was a teacher there.

Roughly half of Houghton’s seventh- and eighth-graders are considered proficient in state math assessments, compared with 30 percent and 24 percent at the district level, as of 2011-12. At the state level, more than 60 percent of all students passed these tests.

But as Wiley looks ahead to a new year and the second year of Common Core curriculum and testing, he is optimistic. It’s hard, he said, but raising student standards is a good thing.

Right now, his Medaille students are helping him create a math instruction video that will supplant his regular math class for the day. His students will have the chance to view the video at home and review the video lesson in class.

If he can make enough of them, he said, maybe he can reach out to more students, he said.

“I believe our kids can compete,” he said. “They can compete for the best high schools. They can compete in college. They can compete because they know math.”