Two of Iowa’s Three PAEMST Math Finalists Teach at DMPS

Brian Reece has taught math at Central Academy for the past seven years, where he also helps coach the school’s nationally-recognized math team.

It’s that time of year when apples fall on the noggins of great thinkers like Isaac Newton, and change agents from Nobel laureates on down are being recognized. And again this year Des Moines Public Schools can claim two of Iowa’s three math finalists for the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Math & Science Teaching (PAEMST).

Today the Iowa Department of Education announced that district math teachers Brian Reece of Central Academy and Jeff Marks of Roosevelt High School have been selected as state honorees. National winners will be announced next spring.

Jeff Marks is a 20+ year veteran educator at DMPS. He has taught math at Roosevelt High School, his alma mater, for the past 8 years.

For DMPS, this is getting to be a habit. The same thing happened last year, as Zac Christensen of Perkins and Josie Burg of the Downtown School comprised two-thirds of Iowa’s PAEMST math finalists. And in 2010 all three finalists were DMPS teachers, one of whom – Barb Leise, also of the Downtown School – was named a national awardee. (Since the award originated in 1983, 10 DMPS educators have gone on to earn the national honor.)

Brian (anagrams anyone?) is in his 7th year at Central Academy. He used to be a wrestler so the segue into grappling with mathematical predicaments came naturally. He’s been coached enough that it informs his teaching methods. Those wheelbarrows full of titles that students haul back from regional and national math competitions every year? Do you suppose that would happen without good coaching? Brian is part of that coaching staff.

He was nominated for the PAEMST by a parent of a former student and cites one of his own former teachers when he was growing up in Osceola, Frank Riley, as a major influence in his decision to become a teacher himself.

A discussion of limits in one of his calculus classes quickly takes off and soars way over the head of a visitor who is struck, on the contrary, by how unlimited everyone seems. Brian scribbles something on the whiteboard and tells his protégés to unknot it without calculators. “No problem,” the visitor thinks. “They ARE calculators!”

A perfect storm of potential and guidance gathers in Room 1022. It happens every day.

The climate’s pretty much the same in Room 2770 over at Roosevelt where Mr. Marks has presided for eight years at his high school alma mater after 14 years at Brody Middle School. His nominator for the PAEMST was former Roosevelt Principal Kathie Danielson.

On the whiteboard in Jeff’s room as a class of pre-calc students files in is a caricature in red marker beneath the words Favorite Math-Related Nickname So Far: Arcsine the Magnificent. It bears a suspicious resemblance to the resident professor. Did one of his students draw it? “Yes, it is me,” Jeff admits, “but actually, I drew it myself.” Never mind the Arcsine part. You wouldn’t understand.

Class begins and an easy rapport between instructor and pupils is readily apparent. Somehow they all wring laughter from triangles. The only things an outsider recognizes here are the word “hypotenuse” and the old-fashioned pencil sharpener bolted to the wall in the back corner of the room.

Jeff looks too young to know all that he does and to have taught it for as long and as well as he has. But he’s in his element, even figuring out the solution last year to the following story problem:  one of the students in the class of a veteran high school math teacher is his own daughter: where is the line drawn between home and school?

“It really was no big deal,” the teacher/dad claimed. “It worked itself out pretty easily.”

Isn’t that what the math whizzes always say?

Brian and Jeff will be honored at a luncheon hosted by the Iowa Department of Education on November 8 at the Prairie Meadows Events Center.

The PAEMST is the highest honor a public school math or science teacher can achieve. Brian and Jeff are now eligible for a $10,000 cash prize and a trip to Washington, DC. Established by Congress in 1983, the award program authorizes the bestowal of up to 108 awards each year.

For more information about the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math & Science Teaching, visit

Photos of Jeff Marks and Brian Reece in the Classroom

DMPS-TV Interview with Jeff Marks and Brian Reece

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