There aren’t many equations that 17-year-old math whiz Jacob Hurwitz can’t understand. But even he can’t decipher how Montgomery County schools’ $2 billion budget does not include $10,000 to fund one of the nation’s top math teams.
It’s the same squad that this year produced the top scorer in the nation, and once starred Google co-founder Sergey Brin. But the days when the school system fully funded the team are gone, at least for now.
The school district, which will still give about $2,500 to cover the coach’s stipend and fees for the American Regions Mathematics League, claims it’s one more way to pinch pennies and equalize funding in the dire budget times faced by school systems throughout the region.
Many parents and teachers, however, worry that in an era of changing demographics and zealous efforts to narrow achievement gaps, it’s one more way the schools are redefining high-level math and stripping bright students of opportunities to excel.
In Fairfax County, the region’s largest district, the league operates out of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, but is paid for with booster club money — now an option for Montgomery’s team.
Parents, however, are frustrated by paying for academics at schools that don’t serve their kids as well as they used to. In the past four years Montgomery County has fallen to the middle of the pack in math performance among Maryland districts. Even as scores have increased across the board, the county’s relative standing after this year’s third through eighth grade standardized tests has dropped to 11th place of 24 counties, from fifth place in 2004.
In that time, resources have been poured into buoying Montgomery’s influx of students with lower incomes and limited English. In four years, low-income students have increased by 13 percent to 35,600 students. Those with limited English have increased by 24 percent to 16,000. In response the superintendent has asked for 60 additional English as a second language instructors even as the overall number of teaching positions has declined.
In Montgomery, the initiatives have started to pay off for at-risk kids. Since 2004, the number of low-income, Hispanic and black students passing the standardized tests has gone up by more than 40 percent, though they continue to lag behind their white peers.
At the same time, Montgomery County’s white and higher-income students, who once comprised the majority of those in the school system, have made less dramatic gains.
And programs like the math team and the Montgomery Blair Science Magnet have only a fraction of the support they once enjoyed.
"The district says ‘We love math, but we don’t have any money, so what do you expect us to do?’ " said Eric Walstein,the team’s coach for the past 33 years and a Blair teacher. "Well, with a $2 billion budget, there’s a lot I expect them to do."
Instead, the expectation has fallen upon Walstein to find the money to fund next year’s competition and 13-week preparation, because 75 mathletes like Jacob Hurwitz have spent the summer in training.
The competition "is important because it’s not math you’d otherwise learn in school," Hurwitz said by phone from a six-week graduate-level math camp in Massachusetts. "In school, you learn the basics, but there’s a whole other branch you need to learn for college level math -- different ways of looking at problems, different ways of thinking."