GAINESVILLE, Fla.—After 24 years of teaching advanced math, Will Frazer calculated how the COVID-19 plan would affect students during the 2020-2021 school year and cringed.
And he knew covering half his face with a mask certainly would impede his animated teaching style, even with those attending classes in person.
If the goal was to keep students on track in math, the plan didn’t add up, argued the Wall-Street-whiz-turned-public-school-teacher.
His students would fall behind, he knew in his heart. Already studies were emerging, documenting sickening trends teachers already recognized. Students kept out of classes because of the pandemic were experiencing learning losses, not gains.
Some students might not care, he knew.
But his did.
He worried that after all their hard work and sacrifice to stay far enough ahead to win 12 of the previous 13 national championships in mathematics, the learning losses would crush some of them.
“I needed freedom to not follow a lot of these rules that were going to be set up,” he recalls now.
Calling on his analytical skills, Frazer hatched a plan. His solution earned the blessing of his pastor, his principal at Buchholz High School and the county school superintendent.
The best move was for him to quit.
Fraser agreed to give up his paycheck, healthcare, retirement contributions, and seniority among faculty.
School officials pledged to give him access to his old classroom and teaching materials.
And he would move his teaching operation to his own place of worship less than two miles from the high school.
Pastor Calvin Carr, of North Central Baptist Church, asked for nothing in return for the use of Sunday school classrooms that sat empty on weekdays. He saw it as an excellent way to reach math student families—many of whom professed atheism—simply by showing kindness with no strings attached.
And school officials sealed the deal by promising to award credit to students who worked with Frazer at the church.
So maskless and engaging, Frazer taught seven, 50-minute classes each school day.
Some students came before school, then drove, walked, or biked to campus. Some carpooled to the church between other classes at the school campus.
Students from families too nervous about COVID-19 to allow attendance at the school showed up, too. Meanwhile, many of those parents volunteered to clean and disinfect the facility.
Parents who could afford it pitched in to cover Frazer’s salary and make a voluntary offering to the church to help cover electricity costs and normal wear and tear on the building. To make up for early pandemic setbacks, Fraser held classes 199 days that year, instead of the standard 180.
“I had kids who told me it was the happiest part of their day,” he says now. “They were learning from me, and getting to see some of their friends. That helped their mental side.
“And their learning gains were massive, compared to the rest of the world that was kind of in survival mode. Everybody else was shutting down, but we were barreling along.”
Competition results summed up the success of the makeshift math program best.
In April 2021, Frazer’s team won their 14th state championship. Three months later, the 140-person team overcame other national championship competitors’ scores by a record margin.
At the start of this school year, as pandemic worries relaxed, Frazer returned to a paid post at the high school.
Earlier this month, his math students won their 15th state championship. Now, they’re eager for the fray in Washington, D.C. this July.
Making Math Champions
Fraser didn’t aim to be a teacher.
He’d worked hard when he attended Buchholz as a student, and won the school’s highest math award.
At the University of Florida, he dumped mathematics studies when classwork became more about proofing and less about problem-solving. He switched to pursuing an accounting degree.
“Probably a mistake,” Frazer says now.
He hit Wall Street at 20 in 1980—“a great time to be a bond trader” and make money fast, he says.
After seven years of living frugally and saving the money he’d made, Frazer ditched that fast-paced lifestyle. He bought a torch-red Ferrari and tooled around between golf courses.
Ten years passed on Florida fairways. He itched to do something more meaningful.
“I was bored, and I felt my life was somewhat empty. I felt I needed to do something substantive, and not just be a golf bum,” he says.
So he volunteered at golf tournaments for kids, seeing it as a way to help push youngsters to strive for excellence. That sparked a new passion.
Wired For Numbers
He took a volunteer golf coach gig at a school in his hometown. Soon, he was offered a $900-a-year paid position to coach golfers at his high school alma mater.
He asked to try a year of classroom teaching in math, as well.
“I fell in love with it instantly,” Frazer says.
Meanwhile, he married the school’s guidance counselor, Jenny, and eventually, they welcomed sons Jake and Ryan. Jake, a senior, now is one of the top math competitors in the country, and “way better than I ever was,” says his dad.
Frazer credits his sons’ grandfathers—university professors in math and economics—for the “good gene pool.”
“Some of us have the math gene, and some don’t,” he says. “Some people are wired for it.”
But if you make it fun, almost anyone can become good at math, he believes.
“I think culture plays the biggest role. Asian families put a lot of emphasis on education on a young age. American parents dream of kids being sports stars; Asian parents dream of their kids getting Ph.Ds [doctorates] from prestigious places.”
Indeed, many of his team members pursue degrees at the nation’s most-prestigious universities after high school, he says. One has been named on the Forbes achievers list known as the of 30 Under 30.
Like any good coach, Frazer scouts constantly for future math champions. Then he fights to make a way for them to succeed.
“We start kids in elementary school competing in leagues,” he says. “Math is no different than football. If you have a kid show up in ninth grade who’s never competed in football, he’s probably not going to be a great high-school football player. But if he starts competing when he’s a little kid, by the time he gets to 9th Grade, he’s probably going to be a good football competitor.”
Same with math.
If an Alachua County middle-schooler is identified as a math whiz, he or she can start the school day in one of Frazer’s advanced math classes at the high school, then ride a bus to middle school for other academics.
Under the leadership of Frazer and his fellow coach, the local middle-school team has won the past six state championships in their division.
Part of Close-knit Team
Senior Himal Bamzai-Wokhlu knows she’s been part of something special under Frazer’s tutelage.
She met her mentor when she attended a summer math camp after 6th Grade. It wasn’t so much a love of math that made it irresistible, but more being part of a close-knit team willing to work hard together to be the best. The team usually is made up of about one-third girls.
Bamzai-Wokhlu tried out with a math test, and qualified for the team as a 7th grader.
Five years later, under Fraser’s watchful eye, she and peers are planning to run the free, five-morning-a-week math camp this summer for 300 younger students, many in 4th Grade and 5th Grade. Transforming math into worthy summertime recreation is easy, the 16-year-old says.
“They’re excited the entire time. It’s really fun for them,” she says.
Teaching the younger students is fulfilling for her and her teammates. And when campers go home at lunch time, the volunteer counselors grab pencils and paper and spend another four hours sharpening skills for competition.
Year-round, they drill math together for about 15 hours most weeks. She and her peers also participate in other activities. Some act in theater, play sports, or perform in band.
Math is the magnet that draws them together, even working through holiday breaks from school.
“The math team is so unique,” Bamzai-Wokhlu says. “It’s like a community you’re probably never going to get to experience [anywhere else]. So when all the seniors leave, they’re really sad about it.
They know that in college, they will have a tough time finding a similar “group of 90 people willing to basically spend their lives dedicated to this, doing math all the time,” she says.
Last year, COVID-19 restrictions meant some competitions had to be administered at local schools, with results mailed in for judging. Normally, competitions involve traveling in crowded charter buses, and facing off for several days of individual math tests and team problem-solving contests.
Speed is a factor. And accuracy.
Word problems often take creativity and high-level computations. They may involve topics like complicated interest calculations, or figuring out answers to real-world problems, such as how to putt the perfect angle at a miniature golf obstacle for a hole-in-one.
Bamzai-Wokhlu isn’t sure what she wants to do with all the math she’s mastered. But she knows she wants to keep competing as long as she can.
“We joke about the math-team-to-Wall-Street pipeline,” because many math team veterans gravitate to stock market careers, Bamzai-Wokhlu says. They’ve been inspired by their teacher, who now rumbles up to school in a new red Corvette.
She’s eager for her 8-year-old brother to commit to the math team so he, too, can enjoy the benefits while reaching the highest level of math offered in state schools, second-year Calculus.
Her 7th Grade sister, previously an avowed bookworm and math-hater, already has been converted.
What’s the payoff?
The camaraderie is No.1, Bamzai-Wokhlu says. But there are real-world benefits, too. She adds with a laugh that math team competitors simply notice things about numbers “that are unseen by the rest of the world.”
“Mr. Frazer is the force behind the math team. It doesn’t exist without him. All the kids are geniuses,” but without his dedication, few would probably push themselves to this level, she says.
It matters to students, when they see a teacher willing to sacrifice to make sure they have every opportunity to succeed.
For example, when a hurricane swirled off the coast of Florida, threatening to rage across the state, the math team kept meeting. Their teacher made that possible, she says.
Some students could attend prestigious schools with high tuition fees. But their team has what amounts to a secret weapon in Frazer.
“Our biggest competitor is a private school in South Florida,” the 63-year-old teacher admits. “I kind of think it of it like David and Goliath, and David keeps winning. They beat us twice in 17 years. There really isn’t much other competition.”
Frazer is one of those teachers who objects to participation trophies and giving As for effort. It doesn’t help the students, he says.
Nationally, the latest official statistics from the federal government show that only 40 percent of 4th Grade students are proficient at grade-level math.
Minnesota students do best, with 54 percent of 4th graders proficient at or above grade level. Alabama does the worst, with only 28 percent at or above proficiency at grade level. In Puerto Rico, only 1 percent can do grade-level math proficiently in 4th Grade.
Patting youngsters on the back and passing them up to the next grade level isn’t the answer, Frazer and other teachers insist.
Students “don’t get a lot of compliments from me, but when they do, they know they’re real,” Frazer says. “I have high expectations. I’m old school.”
That’s powerfully motivating, teammates say.
“It’s one thing to be be part of a winning team, and to share that sense of accomplishment with peers,” Bamzai-Wokhlu says.
But knowing their teacher quit his job to keep them advancing during the pandemic, and knowing he often travels to the state capital to speak with lawmakers about making educational opportunities the best they can be, “that’s mind-boggling.”
Those realities, and his “old-school” ways make team members work all the harder, Bamzai-Wokhlu says.
“It’s really gratifying for us to see him be proud of us.”