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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  • Biker 94703

    It’d be fun to see examples of the questions they needed to answer.

  • guest

    Way to go!

  • Guest
  • Chris


  • Biker 94703

    Thanks!  That was quite a mix of problem types.  I missed one and didn’t know how to approach another except by brute force.  Way to go Rosa Parks!

  • Pacofurlan

    Go Rosa Parks!!

  • Aperson

    OK, to get serious:

    According to the school’s own site (, Blacks and Hispanics comprise 44.8% of the student body, a number which goes up to 55.4% if you include mixed race students.

    And yet…if you look at the photo and read the names, of the ten Rosa Parks students in the competition, only one was Hispanic (or part Hispanic), none were black, while the rest look and have names identifying them as Asian, white, or mixed Asian/white. 

    Why is there such an egregious under-representation of black and Hispanic kids in the competition?

    Well, as the article states, the students themselves self-selected and had to forego recess in order to qualify for the competition. So there was no selection bias on the part of the staff — it was entirely up to the students.

    And yet after decades upon decades of doing everything imaginable to “close the achievement gap” and boost the self-esteem of “under-represented minorities” (i.e. black and Hispanic students), here it is 2012 and depressingly predictable — no black students and only one Hispanic student even bothered to try.

    This parallels the jaw-dropping low performance of black and Hispanics elsewhere in the Berkeley School System, despite and overwhelming amount of resources, training, money and ideas thrown at the problem, dating back to the ’60s and for every year since.

    Explanation, please?

    And don’t tell me “Math is racist,” because that is itself part of the unconsciously racist progressive theory that blacks have “emotional intelligence” while whites have “logical intelligence.” This well-meaning attempt to place black students on equal social assessment only backfires and lends the implication that we need to concoct some new kind of “intelligence” that blacks are good at since they can’t hack it when it comes to traditional “intelligence.”

    And don’t make the circular argument “It’s bad parenting,” because those parents themselves were probably students at the same school 20 or 30 years ago, and ended up with bad parenting attitudes after going through the same system designed to break the pattern. Saying that it’s the black parents’ fault only implies that, once again, blacks as a group can’t get out of the rut for some intractable reason.

    Given that this is Berkeley, we know that the teachers are forbidden to express any kind of overt or even unconscious racist attitudes, having all gone through training to shed anything of the sort. If anything, black and Hispanic kids are treated more respectfully and have more self-esteem boosting than is given to other groups.

    I want the residents of Berkeley who pay for this school system to offer up their explanations as to why, after five decades of trying, we still can’t get under-represented minorities to excel at academics or even try.

  • guest

    1)  Of my kid’s current Berkeley public school cohort of appx 15 kids, only one kid was encouraged to skip a grade, and that kid happens to be African-American.  And that kid is definitely a shining star and it’s great that the kid is celebrated.
    2)  I wish other Berkeley public elementary schools were encouraged to participate.  Mine does not.

  • Anonymous

    I’d be happy if our school just let parents know about stuff like this, they don’t even have to cut into “achievement gap” BS and dedicate some resources to it.

  • Anonymous

    This is a good place to point out that 25 years into my career as an electrical engineer not only have I never worked with an African American but I’ve never once interviewed one.

  • guest


  • Bprice57

    Congratulations to the Rosa Parks students who rose to this challenge! Mary Martin has been an inspirational teacher in three BUSD elementary schools (that I know of) over the years. My son counts her as one of his all-time favorite teachers and he’s in high school. I’m so glad to see her still doing outstanding work and giving more than most people know.

  • guest

    “OK, to get serious:”  

    How about let’s not.  Your comments a complete buzz kill.  Why not just praising these kids for making Berkeley look good and save (the rehash of) this discussion for another time and place?  Your comments come very close to making it seems that these kids did something wrong when actually they did something great.

  • guest


  • Anonymous

    It’s an impressive mix of problems. It’s sad that their amazing achievement is only celebrated here instead of by the district.

  • guest

     Too bad you’ve led such a limited life, but whose fault is that?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think my life has been limited. My point is that African Americans are pretty much completely absent from the technical fields and it’s not getting any better. Aperson’s comment is just asking what any honest person who thinks this is an awful situation would: Why is it like this?

  • guest

    “My point is that African Americans are pretty much completely absent from the technical fields and it’s not getting any better.”

    Your attempt to extrapolate from your personal experience to label an entire group as being “completely absent from the technical fields” is technically incorrect.

  • guest

    Maybe BUSD is not celebrating Rosa Parks because not all schools in the district took advantage of the opportunity to participate. 

  • Anonymous

     I had never even heard of this until I read about it here and my daughter would be interested in this.  My daughter’s teacher didn’t know anything about it and a few parents I’ve talked to who have kids who would have been interested had never heard of it. It’s hard to take advantage of the opportunity to participate when the district doesn’t publicize that it exists but our school doesn’t really care about kids that are performing well so this isn’t surprising.

  • Hardy

    The proof is in the  pudding. If you had one African American  kid who excelled in math, they too would be standing in that picture.

  • guest

    Hardly, Hardy.  How about students (like those cited above) who would have participated but “had never even heard of this?”  And how about those who excel but don’t care to compete?  And how about those who are too old or too young compete?

    Your odd, racism-tinged (and dumb) comment doesn’t add up.

  • Howie Mencken

    Aperson…what courage and insight! 

    I subscribe to teachings of the African American, UC Berkeley, social anthropologist, John Ogbu and his construct of ‘oppositional culture’, see:

    To the undecided I recommend getting a visitors pass to sit in the quad at BHS during lunch time and draw your own conclusions

  • Anonymous

    Anecdotal, yes, but it’s not just my experience.  This isn’t even controversial so I’m not sure why you’d take issue with it. The numbers of African Americans completing advanced degrees in engineering, math, and the sciences (i.e., a field that doesn’t need to put “science” in its name) is a disgrace. In 2009 the number of STEM doctorates awarded to African Americans fell (!) to under 2%

  • Howie Mencken

    Until the education system is willing to admit what it already knows: That they can do no more with a student than their parents are willing to do for them – there will be no progress. Every kid succeeding in public school is home schooled as well. They’re read to from an early age. They’re helped and encouraged with their math. They see respect and admiration for academic success. Dumping your kids at the curb and expecting smarts to dribble into their distracted minds hasn’t worked. Will never work.

  • guest

    “My point is that African Americans are pretty much completely absent from the technical fields…”

    “The numbers of African Americans completing advanced degrees in
    engineering, math, and the sciences (i.e., a field that doesn’t need to
    put “science” in its name) is a disgrace.”

    “This isn’t even controversial so I’m not sure why you’d take issue with it.”

    Presence in technical fields and completing advanced degrees in my experience is not the same thing.  There is a world outside of academia in which people function apparently without visibility to you.

    By the way, who is responsible for this ‘disgrace?’

  • guest

    Also keep in mind that two of the most significant individuals in the field of computer science – which by your definition isn’t really ‘science’ but which, I can assure you, is technically exacting – were college dropouts.  These men are Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.

  • Anonymous

     You are of course certainly entitled to your opinions but in general you aren’t going to be present in a technical field without an advanced degree, especially in fields like engineering with highly developed and rigorous certification processes. Just like you aren’t going to be operating on people without having gone to medical school, done a specialty, etc. Even in newer, less developed fields such as software engineering a Google will not hire you without a bachelors and you’re almost never going to make it to even a phone screening without more than that.

     But I haven’t been in academia since I finished my doctorate many years ago. You do know that most people who get advanced degrees in things like math and engineering don’t end up in academia, right? It’s not the humanities.

    Obviously the parents and the students (to the extent that they are capable of making such decisions) are responsible but that’s kind of irrelevant here. The question at hand is the one posted by Aperson above: Why do African Americans continue to fail academically when every resource and opportunity is directed at them?

  • guest

    As you posted before, you live on a different planet than the one I inhabit.

  • Anonymous

     Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were certainly two of the most significant people in building the modern computer industry but nobody who knew what computer science is (a specialty in applied math basically) would call either of them computer scientists. Gates at least was a programmer early on, Jobs was a great salesman with good taste but would have been selling used cars if not for Wozniak.

  • The Sharkey

    What planet do you live on? Surely not Earth.

  • The Sharkey

    Interesting paper! Thanks for sharing the link.

  • Howie Mencken

    Dr. John Ogbu, African American, UC Berkeley professor and internationally renown social anthropologist says African American ‘oppositional culture’ is largely responsible for this digrace.


  • Howie Mencken

    Science is not english vocabulary. Saying ‘computer science’ doesn’t require understanding it, as Anonymous corrects you below. Math is the vocabulary of science and the sciences are any child’s gateway to freedom. It’s the ultimate colorblind meritocracy.  

  • Howie Mencken

    Technically questionable, yes; But anecdotally true.

  • Howie Mencken

    “And how about those who excel but don’t care to compete?”

    That’s right. I chose not to compete in the London Olympics decathlon and nobody gave me any props.

  • Christine Staples

    Wow! Congratulations to those children, and many thanks to Mary Martin. I have had the distinct pleasure of working with many gifted and talented teachers in BUSD over the last eight years, but Mary Martin is truly a shining star. She pushes EVERY child to do their absolute best, challenges them to abandon any stereotyping they may have been subjected to by others, convinces them that they CAN succeed, that they can do better than they think. Not only did those children give up their recess to study for this challenge, so did Mary. Mary also gives up her spare time to give extra instruction to scholars of color in the Stiles Hall Scholars to Cal program.  Mary, as a parent, I will appreciate what you do for ALL students for the rest of my days on this earth.

  • Guest

    Math is the vocabulary of science? I always neglected math, got kicked out of advanced math in middle school for reading interesting things during class (while acing the tests) and can’t remember anything much past arithmetic (because I don’t care too). I have only one advanced degree, but I sure have had a productive career in science, hard science that involves discovery and reasoning and benchwork and a whole bunch of technical knowledge. As far as I am concerned math is just a tool, and it is remarkable how much can be done with very little of it. 

  • Howie Mencken

    Whatever you are doing, if you’re working in a room with electric light you have advanced math to thank for it. Read the link I’ve posted twice in this thread on Dr. John Ogbu’s work.  

  • Howie Mencken

    I forgot to ask. I’ve heard this math minimizing argument before…you wouldn’t happen to be on the school board?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I find this very hard to believe.  Not that you have such a position, but that you “can’t remember anything much past arithmetic.”  Algebra doesn’t enter into your workday?  No statistics or probability?  I’d grant that you can along fine without analytic geometry or calculus, but not the other things I’ve mentioned.  Perhaps you have software crutches that do the calculations for you?  

  • Mark Talmont

    I remember when U.C. Berkeley was in the national news because after Prop 209 passed  only one African American student showed up at Boalt Hall law school (though others were offered admission). The Daily Cal published a break down of the racial statistics by department. There were no black Electrical Engineering/Computer Science majors (I think I might have met the last one and he was from Nigeria). Now the Office of Student Research simply does not report such data, so you can’t tell which departments have what students (and if it’s “diversity” you’re worried about you’re going to have to do something about all those Asians in EECS!) 

  • Mark Talmont

    Remember Jaime Escalante, the math teacher from LA whose story was told in the film “Stand and Deliver”? He took barrio youths who were the absolute profile of underachievement and had them passing the AP Calculus test. (The movie doesn’t show it but it actually took him 6 years to get there). The program had momentum, as evidenced by the data shown along with the credits at the end of the movie. Then Escalante retired; he tried to pass the program on to a protege, but it soon fizzled out and now there is no calculus at Garfield High, the last I heard it was a continuation program. The description I read of it sounded like the administration couldn’t wait to kill that program off–look what it said by implication, what were they doing all those years before Escalante came along? LA, like most of the other major metro districts, is run by political operatives who could not care less about the students beyond the money tied to their presence. They are way too comfortable with underachievers because they make good followers. 

  • Howie Mencken


    The post by Aperson below asks for community discussion of one of the most important problems we face. If ever there was a reason for Berkeleyside’s existence, it is to host this discussion. Just by putting the post on your Opinionator page, Berkeleyside would be providing an undeniably crucial service to our community.

    Failing to do so, will miss the chance of many young lifetimes to escape this vicious circle of underachievement.

  • Guest

    I suppose that I could summon up some algebra if I needed to, but that doesn’t happen very often. Basic principles of geometry I do use, but more for everyday life. Probability is pretty arithmetical. I come from a field in which the requirement for statistical analysis generally means a weak result, but nevertheless I do make use of it sometimes. When I do, I collaborate with someone who knows the field extremely well, but I keep tight control of the input and interpretation – I am the always the most skeptical guy in the room. 

    Again, I am not saying that math isn’t useful, even essential, only that it is possible to do a lot with relatively little of it. I always did well if I worked at it, but I found it boring – I have a right to that. I am also familiar with the type who claims that one has to know lots of math to do anything – and I have found them to be generally lacking in imagination. I well remember my delight when one of my undergraduate molecular genetics lecturers told us that he loved molecular genetics because one didn’t have to deal with all of the math that plagues biochemistry – I knew just how he felt.

    None of should be taken to suggest that we shouldn’t be providing math instruction in our schools – far from it. But we should allow those kids their individual interests, even their cultural peculiarities. My child didn’t take part in the math contest (although good friends did) because the practice required giving up recess, and that seemed like an OK choice.  

  • Guest

    Your reply does not seem pertinent to my comment. I did not say that math is superfluous, or that it isn’t a productive activity, only that it is quite possible to accomplish a lot in science without being very deeply versed in it. 

  • Guest

    I don’t see Aperson – or you – offering any insights or solutions: all you are doing is pointing out a problem, and we know about it already. Aperson is hinting that he/she has an explanation, but doesn’t enunciate it – given the charged history of this issue, that makes me suspicious. And all of this as commentary on a piece about a group of kids doing well in a math contest! I’m extremely pleased, especially for Ben. 

  • Mark Talmont

    The answer is contained in your question. What practices have been followed for 5 decades that clearly haven’t worked? Stop doing those things and you might get better results.

    If this were a football game, it would be like 49-0 at the half and the coaching staff all just got a raise. Ms. Rushlynn Ali from the Dept of Education Office of Civil Rights is preparing legal action because somebody said something that could possibly perceived by someone else as having a discriminatory effect because they “knew or should have known” that such an effect was conceivable. The DOJ is preparing to install a monitor to make sure that nobody else says anything either. There is going to be a teach-in led by William Ayers to explain how racism made the team mess up. Jane Elliot is going to get paid $8K a day to lead a seminar and Dean Singleton is getting a contract to investigate if the school lunch program could be blamed because it’s somehow discriminatory. Think I’m kidding? Singleton’s “training” was responsible for the gem in Portland who proclaimed math division examples using PBJ sandwiches was racist and one of Elliot’s acolytes is running around now saying white paper is racist too.    

    Maybe they could try putting up “whites only” signs in front of the library. 

  • Howie Mencken

    You don’t see me offering solutions? Not yet. Not till I’ve heard what those we pay to address this issue have to say. Let them come forward. 

    BUT WHY ARE YOU SO AFRAID OF THE QUESTION?  What vested interest do you have in silencing this public discussion? 

    It’s precisely because of  the charged history of this issue that it is essential to have this public dialogue. The truth won’t make us free until someone starts to tell it.