Competitive math: Middle-schoolers quietly duke it out in Federal Way

Illahee Middle School students wore soccer jerseys with the symbol for Pi on the front. - Neal McNamara, The Mirror
Illahee Middle School students wore soccer jerseys with the symbol for Pi on the front.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

At 10 a.m. Saturday, the massive cafeteria inside Thomas Jefferson High School was filled with more than 100 middle and elementary school students. It was silent, except for the sounds of shuffling papers, pencils scratching on paper and the occasional sound of a youngster squirming in a chair.

A teacher stood at a podium, scanning his eyes across the room. Then, he leaned toward a microphone and said calmly, “five seconds.”

Immediately, all in the room raised their hands in the air holding up their completed tests as the teacher started reading answers to the questions, “The answer to problem No. 1 was negative 12 ... .”

The sound of all the papers being raised at once was startlingly loud. Suddenly the room burst into action. High school-age proctors hurried around collecting the tests, delivering them to teachers, who rushed them to another room to be corrected.

That was just the beginning of a long day of intensive math for the fifth- through eighth-graders (an estimated 124 in total) from around and outside the district who gathered for Federal Way’s fourth annual middle school math competition. The mathletes took a battery of individual and team tests as parents waited on the sidelines, as if attending a soccer or basketball game.

“We want to get kids enthusiastic about math at an early age, and get them training at an early age,” said Thomas Jefferson math teacher and math team coach Tom Norris, who started this middle grade competition four years ago.

The competition began with individual tests. Ten rounds lasting four minutes each with four questions in each round. The competitors wrote out their work on the test, and after each round, the tests were whisked away to another cafeteria where a group of Thomas Jefferson math team members corrected them. Barbara Jun, a senior and president of the math team, sat at a table with Thomas Kim, a junior, and Alvin Nguyen, a junior, speedily marking the tests.

Jun said the math problems are easy, but “because of the time constraint, a lot of people get wrong answers because of the stress.” It’s no surprise that the older kids have no problem judging the younger kids’ work: The Thomas Jefferson math team is one of the best in the nation; it placed 10th in a national math competition last year. Norris’s classroom is plastered with plaques and trophies from innumerable competitions over the years.

The next round was a 40-question 60-minute multiple-choice affair.

Thomas Jefferson sophomore and math team member Paul Jaquish wrote many of the event's test questions. He included questions covering geometry, basic algebra and probability and “some tough” questions. Maybe not for him: He placed 14th out of 100 or so individual competitors at a national math competition last year.

During lunch, parent Andrew Adekoya sat alone along the side of the cafeteria trying his best to stay out of the way of his daughter, Isabella. She’s a sixth-grader at Lakota Middle School, and is captain of her math team at Green Gables Elementary. Adekoya said he’s proud to see his daughter compete, but keeps to the sidelines to avoid being a distraction.

“After a test,” he said, “I never ask how it went,” surmising that if it went well, he’d know.

He said Isabella wins a lot of math competition trophies, but not much emphasis is placed on them. “You have to be modest,” he said.

Trophies were in store for Saturday’s best competitors. Awards were given to the top five highest performing students in each grade on the individual tests, and also to the teams. The trophies were lined up neatly at the front of the cafeteria throughout the competition, staring out at the competitors.

The final event was the team testing. Fifth- and sixth-graders and seventh- and eighth-graders from various schools teamed up to answer 20 questions in 30 minutes. Scores of parents crowded into the cafeteria to watch.

At the awards ceremony, 10 students from each grade were called up to the stage for the individual test awards. The bottom five got a mention, the top five got trophies.

In the end, the top prize for the team competition at both grade levels went to the Bear Creek School, a Christian college prep K-12 school in Redmond.

Bear Creek eighth-grader Daniel Assumptcao’s team not only took home first in the team event, but he also got first in the other two events. Cradling his trophies after the event, he remarked that the test was “not too hard.” When asked how he got good at math, he offered an instructive sentiment: “I just kind of did (math) after school, and got good at it.”

The top schools in team competition:

5th and 6th grade:

1. Bear Creek School

2. Federal Way Public Academy

3. Illahee Middle School

4. Twin Lakes Elementary

5. Wildwood Elementary

7th and 8th grade:

1. Bear Creek School

2. Federal Way Public Academy (one of 2 teams)

3. St. Vincent de Paul

4. Federal Way Public Academy (one of 2 teams)

5. Lakota Middle School

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