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Middle Schoolers Ace Mathcounts Competitions, Follow in Principal's Footsteps
Posted 06/08/2017 10:09PM

As an eighth grader back in 1985, Tyler Fonarow calculated his way to second place in his California home county's Mathcounts Competition Series. Now, Middle School Principal Fonarow is ushering in the new era of the mathlete here at Rowland Hall.

Team and individual Mathcounts trophies are starting to pile up since Mr. Fonarow rebooted Rowland Hall's Mathcounts program in 2014. In 2015, the team took third in the North Salt Lake Chapter. In 2016, they took fourth in the chapter, then leapfrogged some chapter competitors to take fourth in the state. This year, they took first in the chapter, then third in the state, with one Winged Lion for the first time in school history making the Utah team to compete at nationals, and another student ranking fourth in the state.

When Mr. Fonarow was a middle schooler, he thrived on the competitive aspect of Mathcounts. "I want our kids to have that opportunity and see math in a different way," he said. "Rowland Hall has energetic kids who love to be stimulated, and watching the dialogue around a math problem is really fun."

According to the nonprofit, Mathcounts provides students with "experiences that foster growth and transcend fear to lay a foundation for future success." Mathcounts competitions take place at four levels—school, chapter, state, and national—and each level has four rounds. In the sprint round, students have 40 minutes to solve 30 math problems. In the target round, they solve four pairs of problems in six minutes per pair. In the team round, four students collaborate to solve 10 math problems in 20 minutes. Finally, the countdown round is known as the most rigorous: students go head-to-head and have a maximum of 45 seconds to buzz in with the correct answer to a problem.

The level of focus and intensity at a Mathcounts chapter or state competition rivals that of any athletics championship game—including for Mr. Fonarow, who's coached soccer for 15 years. He laughed as he imitated the leg-shaking, nail-biting experience of watching his math students on stage during the countdown round: "The only thing that's been as stressful for me is watching a penalty kick in soccer." View the Mathcounts multifaceted problem of the week, and imagine a middle schooler solving that problem quickly, flawlessly, and with an audience.

The students rise to the challenge. "It makes math more interesting," said seventh-grader Curtis Schaefer, a basketball player and the youngest student on Rowland Hall's four-member Mathcounts competition team. "People that are more competitive like makes you want to win."

Mathcounts presents an opportunity to push students who excel in math, Mr. Fonarow said. Eighth-grader Andrew Yang, Rowland Hall's first student to compete at the Mathcounts National Tournament, echoed that thought. "It's a big step for high-level thinking," he said. Mathcounts problems go beyond simply calculating the area of a circle, for example. "You need to think about the problems more."

Mathcounts—coupled with the Middle School's math faculty and curriculum—has also helped show students just how good they are in the subject. Eighth-grader Zach Benton said he didn't "feel that strong about math" before coming to Rowland Hall this year. At the chapter competition in February, Zach took fourth place in aggregate score and the countdown round. At state in April, the top four students in the countdown round would make the Utah team and go to nationals. Zach placed fourth in Utah overall and fifth in the countdown round, one question away from joining Andrew at nationals—quite an accomplishment for a student who was previously unsure of his math prowess. "Rowland Hall has really strengthened my math skills," Zach said.

Mr. Fonarow said he's proud of the students for developing a culture around aptitude in math. "For some of those kids who didn't realize that they were strong math students, the confidence is half of it," he said. "Once they find success, they're going to keep working at it."

Seventh-grader Kaitlyn Bates agreed: "It's able to boost your confidence when you get something right," she said. "It is also able to help you when you get something wrong."

Mathcounts also fosters friendships across grade levels. Seventh-grader Lizzie Carlin said of working with her older peers, "It's nice to see how they've solved problems, and then they can help me learn what to do for next time."

At nationals in Orlando, Florida, Andrew placed 144th out of 224 students, and Utah ranked 28th out of 56 teams—a huge improvement from last year's ranking of 46th. "I was quite proud of that," he said.

Andrew embodies the growth mindset that yields success in Mathcounts. In sixth grade, he said he barely snagged the fourth and final spot on Rowland Hall's Mathcounts team. Mr. Fonarow held a mock competition and Andrew beat the fifth-place student by a point. From then, he set a goal to get to Mathcounts nationals and worked towards it. "If you really want to do well and you work hard, there's a great chance that you'll do well regardless of where you are in math coming into sixth grade," he said. Weekly practices at school encompassed just 10% of Andrew's Mathcounts studies. He spent the bulk of his study time on the internet researching the kinds of problems asked at competitions, and then practicing those problems.

Andrew said doubts crept in, but didn't stop him: "I thought there would be four kids that are better than me in Mathcounts, that would beat me to nationals," he said. "But I kept working and I got there."

Like Zach, who used Mathcounts in part to meet people at a new school, Andrew emphasized Mathcounts isn't all work and no play. Andrew bonded with his Utah teammates and they keep in touch via social media. In Orlando, they hung out together in a hotel room, talked, joked, and played video games. "It's a cool way to just talk to other people and make friends," he said. "We're actually just kids, and we want to have fun, too."

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