Fantasy football adds up for students

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Jeneva Westendorf walks briskly through the courtyard of Foothill High School, clutching a walkie-talkie like a sidearm. Students clad in stark black and white uniforms shuffle by, gradually filing into the cluster of classrooms around her.

Gang activity, so prevalent in this part of East San Jose, means the students at Foothill are forbidden to wear any colored clothing to school. To blend in, Westendorf, Foothill's associate principal, also dresses daily in black and white. But she is hardly colorless as she patrols the courtyard between classes -- equal parts drill sergeant and den mother.

"Come on you guys, go to class!" Westendorf hollers at a group of male students loitering by the caged-up vending machines. "Oh man, Eli. Go to class!" she says again, pleading.

Foothill is what's known in California as a continuation school, a high school of last resort for students who, for one reason or another, couldn't make the grade in more traditional settings. Many of the students here have criminal records. Teen pregnancy is commonplace. For the students who don't make it at Foothill -- the end of the line in San Jose's public education system -- the stakes couldn't be much higher.

"They go back to their old lifestyles, very dangerous and unsafe," Westendorf says of the students who drop out. "A lot of them don't make it to age 30, 35 if they go down that road. Otherwise, they get lower-paying jobs and struggle because the cost of living here is high and it's not a pretty picture."

Eventually, a dozen students file into John Hagen's math class. Just last year, Hagen had a life about as far removed from Foothill High as you could get. As a software engineer for BroadVision Inc., Hagen jetted off to far-flung locations like Germany, England and Singapore to help clients like American Airlines and Lloyd's Bank establish a presence on the Internet. In 2000, during the height of the dot-com boom, Hagen was riding high, with stock options valued at more than $5 million. Back then, Hagen thought wistfully of teaching as a rewarding career change. But then the dot-coms went bust. In March 2005, BroadVision laid off its entire engineering department. By then, Hagen's stock options had dwindled, but his passion to return to the classroom remained.

Hagen started teaching math at Foothill High School in January. Faced with the challenge of motivating a group of students who face real-life challenges after the final bell, he sought something beyond traditional math textbooks to help him break through. To the surprise of his students, and many of his colleagues, Hagen's solution to real-world problems turned out to be fantasy football.

"This happens to be the number of yards that [Indianapolis Colts quarterback] Peyton Manning had last week, so most of you can use this for your calculation during the main exercise," Hagen says, beginning his lesson in front of the senior algebra students. Armed with their fantasy lineups from the previous NFL weekend, the students eagerly add up their points.

The idea is strikingly simple. Just as in normal fantasy football leagues, Hagen's math students draft a team at the beginning of the fall semester, make trades with classmates, pick different starting lineups each week and compete against one another for total points. But in order for the students to add up their fantasy points each week, they have to first plug their football statistics into mathematical formulas. They can't figure out their total points, or their classmates' points, until they first do the math.

"When I told the kids they would be doing fantasy football, their reaction was, 'Oh this is all fun!' Then I showed them the equation and they were like, 'That's a long equation,'" Hagen says, stretching out the word "long" to emphasize the point.

Some of Hagen's teaching colleagues wondered how a lesson plan based on NFL statistics would work, whether it could truly help students master the math concepts necessary to meet state requirements. Math class at Foothill, a predominantly Latino school, is often the greatest barrier to a high school diploma.

"If they speak English, it's the No. 1 stumbling block," Hagen says. "It's the subject they like the least, so when they don't like something, they tune it out."

But when the subject matter turned to fantasy football, Hagen found students not only listening, but also willing to do the work. Richard Salazar, an 18-year-old senior, acknowledges he fell asleep in Hagen's class his first day, but he immediately perked up when he realized football would be part of the lesson plan. His most pressing assignment on the day of our visit was to find out how his fantasy team, "The Regulators," performed the previous weekend.

"It's not as boring as it used to be," Salazar says with a laugh. "When he connected the fantasy football it kind of had me. I want to be in math class. I wanted to do more work."

For Salazar, a high school diploma carries added meaning. He ends each school day by picking up his 1-year-old son from Foothill's on-site day care center.

"It changes you," Salazar says of his responsibility as a teenage parent. "You've got to think about your career, your future, 'cause it's not only you anymore -- it's you, your girlfriend and your baby."

Salazar is on course to earn enough credits to graduate. If he receives a diploma, he'll be the first in his family to do so. He plans to pursue a career in the heating and air conditioning business once he's out on his own.

Under California's education standards, students like Salazar must master the equivalent of a ninth-grade math level to receive a high school diploma. Hagen insists his fantasy-based curriculum helps students meet and surpass those minimum requirements. Some of the problems his students have to solve using NFL statistics as a starting point, he says, are more difficult than those found on state proficiency exams.


At his home nestled in the redwoods of Northern California, Dan Flockhart hears about the success stories from Foothill High, and gives a telling nod. Flockhart lives in Fortuna, Calif., about a five-hour drive north of San Francisco, but it was while working as a middle school math teacher in the San Francisco Bay area in the mid '90s when he first discovered the power of fantasy sports.

"Some of these students were the types of students who traditionally didn't always turn in their homework and here they were coming to school Monday morning with their homework done," Flockhart says of his former students, who learned math through fantasy sports.

Several years of teaching had left Flockhart disillusioned with conventional textbooks and methods, so he eventually decided to write his own math textbook. With his own money, and working out of his home, Flockhart published "Fantasy Football and Mathematics" last year.

"I put it up for sale online and I didn't have any advertising and I sold 100 copies in the first five days, and that just floored me!" Flockhart says.

The textbook provides instruction on how to read box scores, weekly fantasy scoring sheets and math problems that vary in difficulty from the middle to high school levels. Whereas a touchdown counts for six points in traditional fantasy football, in Flockhart's world it could count for one-eighth or some other far more complex value.

One word problem asks: "If Clinton Portis rushed for 1,364 yards in 10 games, how many yards did he gain per game?"

If you answered 136.4 yards, you get the gold star. But the textbook also includes linear algebraic equations complex enough to conjure up painful flashbacks to high school math class.

Flockhart has since published textbooks on fantasy baseball and basketball. While he remains guarded about the total number of textbooks sold, he says tens of thousands of students are now using his system.

When Flockhart speaks about the growth of his business, he does so with a nervous energy. Never completely at ease, one can't help but get the sense that he feels as if he's on to something big. But it's equally clear Flockhart is motivated by far more than just book sales.

"I think fantasy sports can actually keep kids off the streets and save lives," Flockhart says, pausing to let the effect of that statement sink in.

"Some people laugh when I say that, but there are some colleagues of mine who believe the same thing as well."

Before dismissing Flockhart's statement out of hand, it's revealing to consider the federal government's most recent education data. According to the latest federal study, 83 percent of eighth-grade students in large U.S. cities (populations of 250,000 or more) are not considered proficient in math.

"And in some cities, like Cleveland, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., that number is even higher," Flockhart adds. "It's up around 90 percent. That's shocking."

It gets worse. In large U.S. cities, according to the Department of Education study, half of all eighth-grade students lack basic math skills. Flockhart ponders these troubling findings and remains convinced there has to be a better way to educate kids.

"We can't just get them into the classroom and drill them harder or drill them longer with traditional textbooks and expect them to test better, because they're simply not interested in the material, in large part because the content has no relevance to their lives," Flockhart says.

At Foothill High School, some traditional math textbooks sit, unused, on a bookshelf in Hagen's classroom. One of the word problems in the textbooks asks students to calculate and compare the volumes of both a square and rolled bale of hay. Salazar says those are the types of math problems that used to put him to sleep.

"It's that boring!" Salazar says. "Say it was like a football helmet, or two football helmets clashing, then I'd read the whole page probably."

At ESPN's request, Flockhart forwarded dozens of e-mails from teachers around the country who used his materials. Many of those teachers said they had initial concerns about marginalizing female students, who might not be as interested in a football-based lesson plan as their male classmates. Some teachers said they encountered initial skepticism from colleagues and administrators. But in the end, every teacher had some level of success using fantasy sports mixed with a friendly competition among students.


Bob Creamer's eighth-grade class in Woodbine, N.J., offers the most compelling evidence of how fantasy sports can work in the real world. A small, cash-strapped school district in southern New Jersey, the math scores at Woodbine were so low when Creamer arrived two years ago, not even 10 percent of the eighth-graders were considered proficient in mathematics by state standards.

"The superintendent goes: 'Well, these are the numbers. You have to get the numbers up,'" Creamer says, recalling his initial marching orders.

A dedicated Philadelphia Eagles fan, Creamer had heard of Flockhart's system and was eager to see if it could work, even with underachieving math students. The results exceeded Creamer's expectations. The girls in his class, while reluctant at first, eventually embraced the idea of competing against the boys. Students started showing up early on Monday mornings, lining up outside the door to Creamer's classroom, eager to add up their points from the previous weekend. The walls of Creamer's classroom and the hallway outside his door are now covered with weekly updates of his students' fantasy teams.

Clarissa Marrero beams with pride as she points to her season totals.

"I thought, 'Oh gosh, this is going to be boring,'" Marrero says, recalling the day Creamer introduced the students to fantasy football. Marrero acknowledges she knew little about football when the school year began. She was apparently a quick study. Through mid-October, Marrero led the class in total points.

But for Creamer, the moment of truth came when he was forced to put the new teaching method to the test. He remembers clearly the Friday afternoon his principal called a meeting to discuss the results of the first state proficiency exam since his arrival -- the exam Creamer's students had taken after using fantasy football, instead of the traditional lesson plan.

"I was scared, to be honest with you," Creamer says. "If any teacher says, 'Oh, I don't care about test scores,' they're kidding themselves."

As his principal handed him the test results, Creamer did some mental math. He quickly realized that in just one year, the number of eighth-grade math students at Woodbine considered proficient by state standards had jumped from 9.9 percent to 54.1 percent.

"I was ecstatic," Creamer says. "That was probably the best weekend I had as an educator in 10 years in education."

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 15 million to 18 million Americans play fantasy sports. To that list, one could add a growing number of math students, from coast to coast, motivated not by money or office bragging rights but rather pride and a chance to make the grade.

"It's helping a lot of kids to learn math," Flockhart says. "And that makes me feel good."

John Barr is a reporter for ESPN's Outside the Lines. Producer Evan Kanew contributed to this story.