Math counts

Numbers the focus of CMS extracurricular activity


A banner in a local classroom plays on the importance of a local school's extracurricular group.

It reads: Math is strength in numbers.

For nearly 20 years, Craig Middle School (CMS) has sponsored a small group of students who strive to learn more mathematics than is taught during the regular school day.

This year, the extra work paid off for the MathCounts group. Four on the six-member team of seventh- and eighth-grade students will head to Denver to compete in the state tournament while the rest of the school's student population is off for spring break.

"The competition can be kind of intimidating," said eighth-grader Angie Charchalis. "It can be hard because we can't use calculators."

MathCounts is an all-girl team this year. They gather with math teacher Nancy Macleay at least a few times a week before the first bell rings to practice math skills. A few of the eighth-grade members are enrolled in Algebra 1, which means they'll probably skip it as freshmen.

"It helps because we can be taking calculus as seniors," said eighth-grader Clara Stiefel.

Macleay said the group has three goals: to elevate the prestige of math achievement, increase math awareness and bring out improvements in mathematics and instruction.

MathCounts members agreed the club helps them learn the concepts of doing math: not solely memorizing skills of math problems.

Those concept-based skills are needed for students to overcome anxiety and bridge learning obstacles that keep students from grasping strong math skills, educators say.

Recent efforts among some district teachers are giving students more options to learn math. Scores on state accountability tests among many of the district's grades are often below the state average.

CMS principal Steve Wiersma said the MathCounts group fits in with the district goal to increase math scores across all schools.

"I think it's a good activity," he said. "It's nice that kids can compete with something academically. I'd love to see more and more kids get involved in this."

MathCounts members said the extra work takes the edge off some tests, like the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests that many district students took this week.

Members also said they learn shortcuts to break down larger math problems.

MathCounts competitions push students to work out problems under strict time limits. One section of the contest presses students to complete two math problems in less than six minutes. Another test gives students 40 minutes to work on 30 problems. The competition also allows different times for students to work together and individually.

"I like the competition," Charchalis said. "I'm kind of competitive anyway."

"I think it's fun. It's a challenge, but not too much of one," added seventh-grader, Kirsten McAlexander.

The group camaraderie keeps students from feeling some of the stigma that math isn't cool or the misconceptions that the subject is too difficult to tackle.

Macleay said many in her MathCounts group were involved in a wide variety of other school activities.

"These kids are really committed," she said. "I'm glad they find the time to do math."

The students were largely nonchalant about what the extra studying could mean outside of earning school credit. Competitions are a fun way to get out of town and an excuse to go shopping, they agreed. They're also a good way to spend time with friends while learning math tricks that make the regular school workload easier.

"I think you'll need math wherever you go," Stiefel said.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or

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