Berkeley school dominates regional math competition

A triumphant Rosa Parks team poses with their teacher, Mary Martin, after dominating the MathMatters competition. Photo: Cindy Leung

Fifth grade students from Rosa Parks Elementary School in West Berkeley took home four of the top ten spots in a regional math competition Saturday, besting a field of more than 90 students from public and private elementary schools throughout the Bay Area. Rosa Parks student Ben Roberts took home the top prize, a Kindle Fire HD.

The Ninth Annual MathMatters contest was held in Oakland at Bay Tech High School on Nov. 17.  The contest is held annually in five different states and, according to its website, aims to “stimulate interest and achievement in mathematics among elementary school students and to provide recognition of outstanding young mathematicians, their dedicated teachers, and schools.”

Five girls and five boys from Rosa Parks participated in the competition, answering 15 challenging math problems in only 30 minutes. To prepare, the Rosa Parks students had voluntarily given up recess three days a week for a month to practice with Mary Martin, a Rosa Parks fifth grade teacher who served as their coach.


Rosa Parks students Ben Roberts, Rachel Alper, Olivia Leung-Brown, and Naomi Barrios celebrate the school’s strong showing at the MathMatters regional competition. Photo: Cindy Leung

The day of the test, all the students were very excited and a little nervous. After taking the test, there was about 30 minutes of snacks and waiting while they graded the tests. During this time, many of the Rosa Parks students gathered around to talk about the problems, their answers, and which ones they thought they had gotten right.

When it came time to announce the winners, the competition organizers started with the tenth place and counted down. When they reached eight place, Rosa Parks student Aviv Schifrin walked up.  Then Rachel Alper, the only girl to place in the top 10, walked up to accept the sixth place certificate.  Dylan Goetting was next at fifth place, and went running up to the stage to accept his award. The other winners were announced and the, when it came to first place, the announcer said it was a student from Rosa Parks and all the families from Rosa Parks starting cheering. When Ben Roberts’ name was announced as the winner, he jumped up and down and bounded up to the stage. Afterwards, all the students hugged their teacher and congratulated each other.

Martin, who won a $150 gift certificate as the coach of the winning student, said she was proud of all of the kids who competed.  “They really put a lot of effort into practicing,” she said. “While their peers were out the door for recess and lunch, our students were preparing for 40 minutes of math discourse. On testing day, though anticipation was palpable, our students encouraged each other throughout. Rosa Parks was a winner on Saturday, and we were all proud to be a part of that win.”

School Board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said: “This is where the foundation of loving math and numbers begins, in the early grades. It is outstanding to see so many girls rising to the top in math and I can tell that Rosa Parks is doing something special given how many students were part of the competition. Congratulations to Rosa Parks and Teacher, Mary Martin, and of course, the young girls and boys who worked hard. Thank you for representing Berkeley Schools so well!”

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  • Howie Mencken

    Hey Mark, chill. As a Guest poster (the one who has undergraduate molecular genetics lecturers accountable to him) points out; the kids should be allowed their “cultural peculiarities”, the ones which somehow account for under achievement in math.

  • Guest

    I don’t think that you have any solutions, and unless you have something really good to offer you shouldn’t be too hard on “those we pay to address this issue”. And just what makes you think I am trying to silence this discussion? It seems to me that I have been quite willing to keep tickling you, and it is not my fault if you don’t have anything to add except a link to someone’s theory. Come on, man, tell us what the problem is, what has caused it, and what we should do to fix it!

  • Howie Mencken

    Well Guest I disagree with your analysis that “the kids should be allowed their… cultural peculiarities”; the ones which you say somehow account for under achievement in math.

    Kids aren’t born with “cultural peculiarities”. And it doesn’t tickle me to hear you  condemn them to second class citizenry by saying that. I feel it would be impossible to be too hard on those charged with creating solutions for this tragic state of affairs. 

    Let’s move to the Opinionator page and see what people have to say. And again, are you on the school board or related to it some way? 

  • Guest

    I am flattered that you suspect I am somehow associated with the school board, but you will have to remain in the dark. Try focusing on the content, rather than ferreting out hidden motives.

    Again, you seem to be sure that solutions exist, but you fail to enunciate any. Since this seems to be something that you feel very strongly about, one might expect that you would come to the conversation with more ideas. Instead you want to condemn those “charged with creating solutions”. If you don’t have any ideas, how can you be so sure that there is any feasible solution?   

    Kids are born with highly diverse personalities, and they are born into families that have their own cultures and in turn are embedded in larger cultures. All of those things are quite difficult to change. I’m not condemning anyone to “second class citizenry” (your choice of words), I am merely recognizing that the problem is extremely complex – hence my unwillingness to condemn anyone for failing to come up with a solution.

  • The Sharkey

    I believe you are missing Howie’s point, which seems to be that dumping money on the “achievement gap” in schools won’t solve anything if the problem starts in and is reinforced in the home. If the problem is the home culture, then we either need to work on changing that or if we decide that it’s a cultural issue that we shouldn’t be trying to change we just stop trying to solve the “problem” completely and spend that
    money on other things.

    I’m not sure how I feel about your comment about “diverse personalities” being an excuse for a majority of AA kids doing poorly in math. If we pick that comment apart it sounds an awful lot like saying that black kids are bad at math because of genetic personality traits.

  • Howie Mencken

    Certainly kids are born with “diverse personalities” but it is equally certain they are not born with “cultural peculiarities”. 

    Dr. Ogbu posits the causes of academic under achievement in specific sub cultures in a way which makes current strategies, at best ineffective, and at worst insulting. 

    But then again, those who support math adverse “cultural peculiarities” may wish leave well enough alone. I say let’s move to the Opinionator page and see what others have to say.

    http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/senate/inmemoriam/johnogbu.htm

  • Guest

    You are putting words in my mouth, and Howie’s too. If what you have stated is indeed Howie’s point, he is welcome to make it himself. But can you point to my “comment about “diverse personalities” being an excuse for a majority of AA kids doing poorly in math”? I didn’t say that, and furthermore I have no idea what you mean by “genetic personality traits”. Personality seems to be largely inborn, but the evidence for it having any genetic basis is scant. You seem to be building straw men here. 

    Anyway, I doubt that we differ much on this issue. Howie, I’m not so sure, because he won’t just come out and tell us what he is getting at. My point is that this is a very complex issue, and one needs to be very cautious about drawing conclusions and using them to change policy.

  • Guest

    May I suggest that, rather than simply dancing around this, you write the bloody Opinionator piece and see if B’side will publish it? Please include some specific remedy for whatever it is that you see as the problem.

  • Howie Mencken

    Aperson already posed the questions as eloquently as need be. In my post, which still heads this thread, that’s all I asked for. 

    Perhaps you’re new to Berkeley. The dominant culture here won’t even begin to consider solutions until much, much, much public discussion of the perceived problem(s) has taken place. Dancing with you, as pleasant as it was, doesn’t begin to qualify.

  • The Sharkey

    But can you point to my “comment about “diverse personalities” being an excuse for a majority of AA kids doing poorly in math”?

    In a discussion in which we are talking about a majority of AA students in Berkeley doing poorly in mathematics, you suggested that kids don’t like math because of personalities that they are born with.

    Obviously I’m making some logical leaps here, but if almost everybody in a particular community seems to be born with the same “diverse personalities” (rather than the problem being largely cultural) it would suggest that the issue is genetic, wouldn’t it?

    I’m not suggested you said that, specifically, just that that’s the reductio ad absurdum conclusion of the track you seem to be arguing.

  • Guest

    Ad absurdum indeed! And you’re doing the reducing. Those are leaps alright, but I am not so sure they are logical ones. The interpretation you have made is yours, not mine – let’s be clear about that. Not only did I mean nothing of the sort, I said nothing of the sort.

  • Neighbor

    How on earth have you determined that “Guest” is new to Berkeley?
    Perhaps YOU are new to Berkeley, with your insinuations and overtones.

  • Howie Mencken

    “insinuations and overtones.”

    …sounds like 50′s rock groups.

  • guest

    No, what I meant is that I also have spent a major part of my life in technical fields and I’ve met plenty of African Americans there–I don’t know why you haven’t.  No, not plenty, room for many more, but quite a few.  I recently met the executive director of the East Bay Community Foundation, can’t remember her name, an engineer who had a distinguished career at Bell Labs before taking on this public service job– she’s an African-American and a woman to boot.  Maybe you move in the wrong circles somehow.  

  • guest

     I’m a different guest, but I agree with this one.  By the way, the best predicter of success in computer science is high verbal SAT scores, not math scores.  Clearly many on this thread have no idea what they’re talking about.

  • guest

     Arithmetic does not = mathematics does not = computer science does not = biology.  Ogbu is an interesting eccentric but doesn’t have many who agree with him.

  • guest

     Read this too, however:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ogbu

  • The Sharkey

    The exception proves the rule, eh?

  • The Sharkey

    Yawn.