Rice University School Math Project celebrates 25 years with weekend events
The multifaceted and agile Rice University School Mathematics Project (RUSMP) is 25 and rising in prestige with every passing year.
The project founded by Raymond (Ronny) Wells Jr., professor emeritus of mathematics, has grown to what the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board refers to as the “gold standard” of university-based programs for pre-kindergarten-to-grade-12 education, according to longtime Director Anne Papakonstantinou.
“It started with a summer program for 48 middle and high school math teachers, and now we write curriculum, we produce videos, we have a television show, we are in schools coaching and mentoring teachers,” Papakonstantinou said. “We write items for exams all over the country and collaborate with other universities to produce quality curriculum.”
The project will celebrate a quarter-century of service this weekend with a dinner for friends and supporters Feb. 24 and a conference Feb. 25. Both events will be held at the Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall. Papakonstantinou expects the highlight will come from Jason Gershman, an Owl who earned his bachelor’s (2001), master’s (2006) and Ph.D. (2008) at Rice and is now an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Gershman hooks audiences’ interest through statistical analysis of voting data from popular TV shows. His Rice talk will focus on “Dancing With the Stars.”
“He finds mathematical connections for every popular show, and teachers love him,” Papakonstantinou said.
RUSMP will also participate in Rice’s upcoming UnConvention April 11-15, during which the public will be invited to take an inside look at innovation at the university. The project will offer its campus “math tour” and a live version of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) television show, “Math-A-Letics,” which appears on Greater Houston cable services. Coach Carolyn White, RUSMP’s associate director of elementary and intermediate programs, along with her puppets, will entertain the crowds.
RUSMP works extensively with HISD, said Lance Menster, a co-host of “Math-A-Letics” and the district’s senior manager of teacher development specialists. “One of our core goals is to have an effective teacher in every classroom in the district,” Menster said. “Through the professional development RUSMP provides, we’re able to increase teacher content knowledge, and certainly teachers’ arsenal of effective instructional strategies, with an emphasis on the hard-to-learn standards.”
RUSMP’s professional development and support prepares HISD teachers well for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams, which replace the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests in public schools this year. “RUSMP has always been partners with us in pushing the kind of rigor that STAAR requires,” said Monica Kendall, curriculum manager of secondary mathematics for HISD. “They’ve always been ahead of the curve.”
RUSMP is funded entirely by grants, foundations and donations, as well as by funds from partner school districts, Papakonstantinou said. It began with $325,000 from the National Science Foundation in 1987 to support that first summer program. NSF has continued to be a strong supporter, she said, along with the United States Department of Education Teacher Quality Grants program. Rice provides facilities and graduate credit for participants in RUSMP’s grant programs. RUSMP collaborates with faculty from across campus in its programs and research.
Papakonstantinou, who has a staff of seven and 23 consultants, is a veteran of HISD; she attended its schools and then taught math in the district for 26 years. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Rice and a doctorate at the University of Houston.
She insists one-on-one work remains the heart of the program. “The reason we have staying power is because we adapt,” she said last week while putting the final touches on this weekend’s anniversary celebration. “We respond to what the schools request and need, rather than offering a top-down, ‘Here’s what the university thinks is important for teachers’ program.
“We go into classrooms to observe teachers and offer them feedback. We’re willing to help with anything that a school can possibly need to improve math instruction,” she said.
That sometimes includes triage. The best example, she said, came after Hurricane Ike when Galveston residents had evacuated the island. “We got a call from a district administrator,” Papakonstantinou recalled. “She asked us to compress their math curriculum because students were going to miss six weeks of school and still had TAKS to deal with. We rewrote all of Galveston’s math curriculum so they could teach it in the limited time they had.”
During the school year, the program provides professional development for teachers in the RUSMP classroom. Participants learn techniques they bring back to their own classrooms. Teachers continually write or call RUSMP staff with detailed math questions to be sure they’re providing their students good instruction.
The summer campus program remains RUSMP’s centerpiece. Papakonstantinou said 80 teachers spend the month of June at Rice, split into groups of 20 by grade level: K-3, 4-6, middle school and high school.
“People tell us we need to at least double the size of our summer campus program, but we feel it’s best to keep it small,” she said. “We want our teachers to feel special, professional, a part of a network, and want to know all of them by name. We want to be able to contact them and have them feel comfortable contacting us when they have questions or concerns.
“Keeping it to 80 teachers allows us to get to know everyone. They’re not going to ask us for help if they feel they’re invisible, so we develop personal relationships with all of our teachers.”
“Our schools start signing up in December, as soon as information about the summer campus program goes out, because it’s a hot commodity and hard to get into,” said Menster, who has also served RUSMP as a master teacher. “Schools know the professional development is excellent.”
Other RUSMP programs this summer will include 150 high school students from Houston’s Project GRAD and teachers from HISD’s alternative certification program.
What comes through in any conversation with RUSMP staffers is a passion for math. “Our summer programs — and all of our programs — provide time for teachers to really explore mathematics and understand it deeply,” Papakonstantinou said. “If you don’t really understand what you’re teaching, you can’t teach it. It has to be yours.”