The motivation for creating the Mathlete Coaching Project came from the need to increase student mathematics achievement. In spring 2004, the principal of the high school neighboring PLU contacted the university to share the results of a mathematics placement test administered at the school: of about 130 juniors, less than a dozen were qualified for anything beyond remedial mathematics in college. His call was a call for help, which initiated a weekly discussion group that included middle school and high school teachers, principals, and other school district administrators, together with PLU education faculty and math faculty. Celine and Bryan Dorner, the founders of the Mathlete Coaching Project, were part of this group. The group was influenced by reading Radical Equations by Robert Moses, the founder of the Algebra Project. In the book, Moses points out that algebra is a gatekeeper to higher education, and that without algebra, children are getting a “sharecropper education.”
The idea that students need to be recruited into a community that values and celebrates mathematics resonated with the group, which, in response, decided to organize a Math Appreciation Night to showcase mathematical work by students. The event was held in May and deemed a success, with 267 attendees. Students brought their family members and friends from other classes, and teachers brought their colleagues. Several administrators from the school district attended. The students showed off posters they made, and PLU faculty members awarded ribbons to the best posters. Math games were played.
However, more than one evening of mathematics was needed. Another of Robert Moses’ ideas kept calling out: In the Young People’s Project, an offshoot of the Algebra Project, he used older students as role models and mentors for the younger ones. Providing an opportunity for PLU students to volunteer for an activity related to their coursework seemed a natural fit for PLU whose mission statement includes educating “for lives of service.” Bryan and Celine presented the idea to recruit and train PLU mathematics students to act as coaches, role models, and mentors, and Mathletes were born. Initially, there were three teachers and six PLU students in the program, two students with each teacher. Students ran their sessions weekly during regular class time. Intel began to fund the program and it grew a great deal: at one point there were 12 teachers and 20 coaches involved in the program.
Intel funded the program until 2012, and there have been numerous changes in the program since. There were a few changes in leadership over time. Currently, Ksenija Simic-Muller coordinates the program. It is much smaller, and serves only one school: Keithley Middle School, located across the street from PLU. The program runs after school, twice a week, and has served close to 50 middle school students in 2016-2017. Many of the students involved in the program are leery of mathematics, and the coaches’ primary goal is to increase their appreciation of mathematics and improve their attitudes about themselves as mathematics learners.
We would like for the program to grow again and welcome interest from other schools in the neighboring districts.