Washington Middle students defy their school's "rough" reputation to excel at math
POSTED: 11:29 a.m. HST, Mar 24, 2014
The kids at Washington Middle School used to think they didn't have a chance to come out on top in academic contests.
But the high-poverty school has become a powerhouse in the annual MATHCOUNTS competition, taking first place at the state championships three years in a row, topping public and private schools including ‘Iolani and Punahou.
Washington heads into Saturday's state championship in a strong position. Nine out of the 12 top scorers at the Oahu chapter competition last month were from Washington, vying with contestants from 27 schools.
Their coach, Sung Park, sums up their secret in two short words: hard work.
A Korean immigrant who learned English as a second language, Park himself knows something about the value of perseverance.
"People think Washington is a rough school," Park said. "It's not. Our kids are the best. I give credit to them."
Two-thirds of the students at the McCully-Moilili campus qualify for subsidized lunch because of low family incomes, and math-team parents include taxi drivers and restaurant workers, Park said.
These kids don't take things for granted. They know anything could happen in the tension-packed final round of the state competition, being held at Kamehameha Schools, so they keep practicing.
"This room is a second home for them," Park said during a prep session this week. "Recess time or after school, they just come here, sometimes till 5 o'clock. I have to tell them, ‘Please go home.'"
On Tuesday after school, the kids ribbed one another and laughed when teammates hit the buzzer quickly and delivered a wrong answer, as their coach reeled off tough word problems from a previous national contest.
"Why are you missing so many?" asked Park, who began coaching the team in 2009. "Do I push you too hard?"
"No," came the resounding chorus.
"Mr. Park is pretty cool. He doesn't stress too much about what we do," explained eighth-grader Neopold Ko, "as long as we do well in school and don't cause trouble."
Added a teammate, "He's a wonderful coach who gives us food."
While math can be a dry subject, MATHCOUNTS turns it into a spectator sport, with a single-elimination live countdown round after written tests are complete. The countdown pits students in pairs, head to head, answering complex problems on the spot.
Each question is projected on a screen, and contestants often take a glance and hit the buzzer to answer even before the announcer finishes reading it aloud.
Team member Kenny Thai, an 11-year-old seventh-grader, enjoys the jousting.
"My old school didn't challenge me, so I wanted to do something that was actually fun for me," he said. "I didn't want to be a regular student. I wanted to be more than that."
Along with Ko and Thai, other team members going to the finals are Kent Kiyama, who ranked first at the Oahu Chapter competition, Jason Cho, Edward Requilman and Christine Ha.
Washington came in first, followed by ‘Iolani, Punahou, Kawananakoa Middle, Mililani Middle and Wahiawa Middle schools. Those six Oahu schools will be joined at the state competition by students from Seabury Hall on Maui and Waiakea and Hilo intermediate schools on Hawaii island.
"It used to be the other way around, with Punahou and ‘Iolani on top," Park said, scanning the chapter results. Washington has 20 students on its math team, and Candy Ewell coaches the sixth-graders. Older students also mentor the younger ones.
Principal Mike Harano remembered his students had a different outlook when he first came to the school.
"I heard my students conceding to Punahou, to ‘Iolani, and I asked them, ‘How do you already know?' They said, ‘They're smarter than us. They are private schools.' I said, ‘Really? To me, if you work really hard, you have just as good a shot at winning as anybody else.'"
"The great thing about middle-school kids is they believe you," Harano added with a grin. "They are not so jaded as in high school."
Private schools have taken notice of the results. As Washington eighth-graders move up from middle school, the top scorers tend to get scooped up by ‘Iolani and other selective high schools, often on full scholarship, Park said.
"Already this week, five of our kids on the math team got into ‘Iolani School," the math teacher said. "Every year, ‘Iolani or Punahou, they take our kids. In the high school math competition, I see Washington grads versus Washington grads. They go to ‘Iolani. They represent McKinley."
MATHCOUNTS, a national program to get middle-schoolers excited about math, is sponsored locally by Hawaiian Electric Co. and the Hawaii Society of Professional Engineers, with help from Hawaii's teachers.
The national competition will be held in Orlando, Fla., May 8 to 11.
Harano emphasized that the math team is just part of the mix at Washington, which offers activities from taiko drumming to sailing to Special Olympics. His students excel in chess, wrestling and art competitions, he said.
The school's philosophy is to give each student a chance to shine. That's especially important for young adolescents, since middle school can be rough.
"You're clumsy, you've got pimples on your face, you're getting interested in the opposite sex, your body is growing, you're tripping over your feet," Harano said. "It's just a hard time for kids. But if you can focus and you can find a passion, then middle-school kids do tremendous things."
"It's not about the test score," he stressed. "It's about kids finding a passion."