After school, in a classroom with lights off and the window shades drawn, kids on the Whitney Young math team sit in pairs. Their teacher flashes a problem on the screen—a problem that stretches on and on—and fingers fly over calculator buttons.
Two students sitting near the front of the room divide the problem, one taking the first part, the other one solving the final part. They’re racing against their teammates.
There’s a three-minute limit, but these students have the answer long before the annoying buzzer goes off. What’s impressive is the problem:
It takes 23 seconds just to read out loud. By that time, some of the kids have nearly solved it.
Struggling schools are a familiar story in Chicago, but the city is also home to some of the very best public schools in Illinois. Chicago’s Whitney Young High School is a powerhouse in sports and academics. And recently, the school brought home the top trophy in the state for math.
“In preparation for contests, we usually will try to put together a practice that is 100 times harder than the actual contest would be,” said Matthew Moran, one of the team’s two coaches. “That’s getting harder and harder as they get better.”
To toughen up players, coaches don’t just forbid calculators for certain problems—they sometimes forbid pencils.
“We try to handicap the juniors and seniors by telling them they can’t use pencils or paper,” Julienne Au said.
That sort of practice is what got the team to the Illinois state math competition last month in Urbana-Champaign. The top contest features written and oral tests, team and individual exams, and relays.
Chicago public schools have won lower divisions of the state math competition. But in 33 years, they’ve never won the most competitive category. That title has gone to schools like Naperville North, New Trier, or the Illinois Math and Science Academy, which draws top math students from all over the state. This year, the team to beat was Adlai Stevenson, in Lincolnshire.
“In our heads, for me at least, I could hear them announcing, ‘Second place is Whitney Young,’” remembers Young senior Annie Chen. “I was waiting for it to happen and not happen at the same time. And then when they announced Stevenson in second place, we kind of went crazy.”
Students and coaches say they filled the room with cheers. Nobody could even hear the school’s name called in first place, they were screaming so loudly.
But it wasn’t quite over. Second-place Stevenson did what would make any math teacher proud—the team double checked the grading of all its papers, and actually found a mistake. The teams got on their buses to go back home without knowing for sure who was in first place and who was in second. Whitney Young took home the first-place trophy they’d been given, and about an hour into their ride home, they found it was theirs to keep.
It’s gotten harder in recent years to gain admission to Whitney Young, but Moran says his team members aren’t prodigies. They’ve made a steady climb from 18th place six years ago to 15th to 11th to 6th to 2nd place last year.
“In six years people don’t turn into geniuses. In six years people work really hard and learn how to learn math.”
At a pep rally last month—at a school that holds lots of pep rallies—the math team finally got theirs.
“We’ve been coming to pep rallies for a lot of years wishing that it was us on the stage winning the state championship,” Moran told students. “So thanks to the band and to the cheerleaders… and to everybody who made this happen.”
That’s right, the band and the cheerleaders came out for the math team. The head of the state math competition says in addition to a tough curriculum and dedicated coaches, winning math teams often do something less tangible—they manage to make math cool, like football or basketball. Something kids would want to stay after school for.
Student journalist Aaron Atchison contributed to this report.
Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation