Young minds dominate state math championship

Despite being a high school math competition, a local junior high marks its place at the top with a second place finish.


Junhee Lee, Business Manager, Print Copy Editor, Designer & Reporter

Math is clearly not a game of age or size but, rather, a game of the mind.

At least, according to last Saturday’s high school state Great Plains Math League competition, at which a team of six junior high students, each looking less than 5 feet 5 inches tall, ousted some of the best high school mathletes in the state to finish in second place. Led by junior high math teacher and math club coach Mark Norton, Northwest Junior High had one student finishing in the top ten individually and won second place in all of the team events.

This level of performance from young mathematicians has never been a surprise at the state tournaments. For the past three years, the Northwest team has placed within the top four and has consistently had at least one student place in the top ten. Four years ago, the Northwest team even bested all of the high school teams in one portion of the competition. However, the top two math schools in Iowa had been monopolized by Iowa City West High and Central Academy in Des Moines. That is, until now.

“It is enjoyable to see my students continue to experience success in math competitions,” Norton said. “I am very proud of the dedication, commitment, and camaraderie displayed by members of the Northwest math club. It is also satisfying seeing that camaraderie and commitment continue into high school and beyond.”

Northwest’s success might be too close to comfort for West High. On the Team Round portion of the competition, West solved exactly one more question than the Northwest Team. On the Power Round portion, West received exactly one more point (out of 100 possible) than the Northwest Team. And despite the 85 point gap between the two schools, in the end, this is a marked difference from the 150 point gap from just last year.

The source of these youngsters’ success? The answer seems to have two parts. Firstly, there has been a major increase in the number of junior high mathematicians, as evidenced by the fact that the Northwest math club has doubled in size over the last four years. The second factor seems to be Norton’s role as the math club coach. With a majority of the West High mathletes being former Northwest students who participated in the junior high math club, and with all of the members of West High’s varsity 1 team having been on the varsity team at the junior high math club, Norton himself feels that he had had some influence on West’s continued success at the high school level.

I create a culture where students are encouraged to learn, develop friendships, pursue a common interest, and hone their problem-solving skills.”

— Mark Norton, math teacher and math club coach at Northwest Junior High

“My role is to serve as a catalyst,” Norton said. “I create a culture where students are encouraged to learn, develop friendships, pursue a common interest, and hone their problem-solving skills.”

As one of the organizers of the state competition, James Kirpes, math teacher and math club coach at West High, has been witness to the results of Norton and his students’ work. Kirpes noted that Norton’s work has, “in no small measure, led to continued success here at West High.”

“I personally cannot underestimate the quality of the math program that is advised by Mr. Mark Norton at Northwest Junior High,” Kirpes said. “I am acutely aware of, and I do my best to let Mr. Norton know, how crucial he has been to our success and how appreciative I and our students are of his work.”

Norton also noted the relationship between the high school and the junior high math clubs, specifically giving credit to Kirpes and Mrs. Karen Meyer, another math teacher and math club coach at West, for their influence at the junior high level.

“Mr. Kirpes and Ms. Meyer … have been mentors to me in how to run a math club and interact with their students,” Norton said. “I have learned much from their example. They give students a place to go, expose them to engaging, challenging mathematics, and create an encouraging environment where students enjoy being together.”

In addition to Northwest’s success, the West High math club clinched a thirteenth consecutive state championship. West High took home the first place award in all of the team portions of the competition and had six of the top ten individual finishers. Casey McClenathan ’17, the captain of the Varsity 1 math team, shared her thoughts on the competition.

“Our team performed extremely well. This might have been the first state competition I’ve been to where West had the highest score in all of the rounds and the top three individuals,” McClenathan said. “Sitting in the Little Theater and hearing so many of my friends being called up for insanely good scores and knowing that I was a part of this team for four years was one of the best feelings I’ve had. I still can’t believe that I went from a seventh grader awkwardly shaking Mr. Kirpes’s hand to being Varsity 1 team captain of my senior state math competition,” McClenathan said.

In addition to this feeling of pride, McClenathan felt a bittersweet melancholy in competing in her last state competition.

“There are so many lasts that I experienced at the competition. Even something as simple as receiving the state math information packet with its very specific font and formatting is something that I’ll never get to do again,” McClenathan said. “During awards, I realized how many people I had gotten to known through math from West and from other schools that I might not see again.”

For more information about the state math championship, click here for results on and click here for this week’s West High Weekly and it’s snippet on the state competition.

Photo credit to Mark Norton.