- Sponsorship -

Teacher in the Running for Top Math Award

Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series on the difficulties many students have with math, and what methods some schools and teachers are using with success.

In his Advanced Placement statistics class, teacher Luke Wilcox is known to pass out Skittles and put students to the challenge: find out if the number of each color per pack is the amount the company once claimed on its Web site. The students figure out the statistics of red, green, yellow and orange candies and form a conclusion.

Wilcox, who is starting his 14th year at East Kentwood High School, makes analyzing data fun. There are so many ways students can apply percentages to their lives, he said: “In statistics, it’s very natural. I don’t have to try real hard to find examples.”

His approach to getting students to understand the concepts seems to be working. In Wilcox’s class last school year, 98 percent of his students passed the AP exam. In 2012, 100 percent passed. The national average of students passing AP exams in a class is 54 percent.

Wilcox was recently named as a finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The award is the highest recognition a K-12 teacher can receive for outstanding science or mathematics teaching in the United States. Established by Congress in 1983, the program authorizes the president to bestow up to 108 awards each year.

Recipients of the award receive a certificate signed by the president, a paid trip for two to Washington, D.C., to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities, and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation.

Teaching More than Just Numbers

When talking about Wilcox, students and teachers refer to him as talented, inspiring, charming and “a life coach.” Former Kentwood Superintendent Scott Palczewski noticed those qualities and nominated Wilcox for theaward. Palczewski’s daughter, Emily, was in Wilcox’s precalculus class. She went on to ace her college calculus classes at Michigan State University.

“Luke is a teacher leader who is focused on the success of all students,”  Palczewski said. “While Luke ‘s AP students have performed extraordinarily on the exam, he has also sought creative ways to engage those students who find math difficult.”

Palczewski said Wilcox is known to come up with motivational slogans before AP exams, meet students for breakfast, attend their music and athletic events. Students know “he is genuinely interested in their personal success, and not just in the math classroom.”

“Luke is one of those truly gifted educators who make everyone around them better,” he added. “He is a difference maker in the lives of his students. There is no greater compliment for an educator.”

Wilcox has spent his entire career at East Kentwood, teaching everything from Algebra 1 to geometry to pre calculus. The University of Michigan graduate received his master’s degree from Grand Valley State University.

He said he’s always used a real-world, project-based approach, but sees new emphasis on that with the Common Core, national standards that involve more inquiry-based learning.

“The Common Core has reinvigorated me about the idea and pushed me forward,” he said, noting its focus on more student-centered learning, less memorizing and thinking through problems.

Besides AP statistics, he serves as an academic support coach for teachers and is the math department chair. “I definitely have the goal of being an influential leader that makes positive change in the school.”

Changing their Perspectives

Wilcox gets such high marks from staff and  students because he teaches why the steps in solving a complicated math problem are needed, said Zaineb Shatawi, a 2013 graduate and Grand Valley State University sophomore.

“It was never about learning the routine, but developing a true understanding of how things work,” Shatawi said. She explained Wilcox would assign a multi-step statistics problem, and after the whole class went through it would say, “But guess what? There’s an easier way to do this problem!”

“He wanted to make sure we knew how the shortcuts got us to the answers before we were allowed to use them. This helped us a lot when we encountered unique problems because we knew the basis of everything. It helped us so much.”

For Abbie Spica, a 2014 graduate now attending Saint Mary’s College, Wilcox helped change her whole attitude — not just toward math but life in general. Before his class, she hated math.

“He taught me in a way that I could understand, even if that meant coming after or before class to devote individual attention to me to ensure that I succeeded in his class,” Spica said. “This taught me a valuable lesson about attention. I realized that I must be attentive to every aspect of my life.

“From positive and negative signs on my math problems to making sure I am organized, Mr. Wilcox made sure that I would learn how to pay attention to detail,” she added. “This skill has greatly prepared me for college; now I feel able and ready to conquer a heavy class load while staying focused and organized.

“Mr. Wilcox is a phenomenal math teacher and even more amazing life coach.”

- Sponsorship -
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


Fourth-grade hockey fan gets a magical hour on ice: ‘I made the shot!’

Raised as a Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins hockey fan, Jackson Solow lights up while skating on an ice rink wearing his favorite hockey jersey...

‘This time it is continued learning’

One school’s switch from in-person to virtual education last week was nearly seamless, especially when compared with the forced school closure in March...

Foundation grants $28,285 in fall funding requests

Virtual phys ed and art experiences, materials to improve classroom focus and books on social issues aimed at middle-schoolers are among the grants approved this fall...

Latest school closings expand on state-ordered high school mandate

More Kent County districts continue to announce temporary school building closures, as schools contend with a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Kent County and Michigan...


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related Articles

Superintendent announces retirement after 33 years serving Kentwood community

Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff this week announced he will retire at the end of the school year, June 30...

Schools in nine districts announce closures as COVID cases spike

New temporary school building closures were announced by nine school districts in Kent ISD this week, as schools contend with a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Kent County and Michigan...
- Sponsorship -


Engagement: The Most Important Measure of Student Success

Polls find that students’ engagement in their school work declines as they ascend the grades. Tests that don’t relate to their real-life experiences exacerbate the problem...


Food ‘angels’ support hungry kids through pandemic

They work all across Kent County, guardian angels with peanut butter on their hands and crumbs on their shirtsleeves...
- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You LiveWGVU