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Sumter girls take math championship

Harvard president Lawrence Summers made national headlines recently by suggesting that “innate differences” in the genders meant that female students would always lag behind in math. Judging by the results at the 2005 AISA Math Team state championships, it seems the news didn’t quite make it to Sumter Academy.

Sumter’s all-girl Math Team took home the AISA state title Tuesday, holding off Mobile’s Faith Academy in the final round to take a two-point victory. The team is believed to be the first all-girls squad to win the title.

“It’s a great accomplishment,” said team coach and sponsor Rita Bonner. “The girls have put in a tremendous amount of work to get here.”

Bonner said Sumter’s achievement is even more substantial when taking into consideration that there are no classifications in AISA math team competition.

“There’s no divisions,” she said. “In athletics there’s three, 1A through 3A. We’re a 1A school going up against 3A schools and beating them. Schools like Faith and Morgan Academy, they can have as many as 2,000 students, and we’ve got 274.”

Amongst the seven district champions that earned the right to compete at the state level–Sumter, Faith, Morgan, Tuscaloosa, Lee-Scott, Monroe, and Abbeville academies–Sumter was the smallest. According to Bonner, there was even more working against the team than the enrollment disadvantage.

“The questions cover everything from pre-algebra to Calculus I, including trigonometry and geometry. But our school doesn’t teach Calculus,” she said. “There are going to be seven questions on the test that our girls cannot do. That means the girls have to be excellent at what they know. They can’t afford even one careless mistake”

Especially not when the margin of victory was as razor-thin as it was Tuesday. A math team competition consists of two parts, first a 50-question written test in which the competitors have 90 minutes to finish. The second part is called “ciphering.” The teams face a large projection screen on which complicated problems are shown one at a time. After a problem appears, competitors have 90 seconds to solve it and submit an answer, all without the use of calculators or other aids.

After the test portion, in spite of their unfamiliarity with Calculus, Sumter was clinging to a two-point lead over Faith. Bonner said the score went “back-and-forth” during what became a nerve-wracking cipher period. But when the eraser dust had cleared, both teams had scored 15 points and Sumter was declared champions.

Team members include Elyse Findley, Sarah Lenning, Kristen Sturdivant, Megan Webb, and Katie DuBois, who served as the five allowed competitors Tuesday. Pam Tanner, Kim Smith, and Martha Watt rounded out the squad.

The students returned home to a school assembly held in their honor Wednesday morning, a “nice” gesture according to Bonner, who credited the victory to the students’ willingness to practice, practice, practice.

“Practice starts as soon as they get here, in their class in 9th grade. Once you learn something, you can’t forget it,” says Bonner, who uses 50-question, variable-subject tests to help prepare students for the ACT college-entrance exam as well as math team. “The key is repetition. If there’s one thing, one word that makes the difference, it’s repetition.”

Don’t worry: if endlessly repeating math skills sounds boring to you, Bonner says it can be dull even to math team members as well.

“They have to work not to get down, but I tell them ‘Trust me, it’ll work out,” she says.

And this year, it worked out even better than expected. Despite the victory, Bonner says the team would still benefit from some gender diversity.

“I actually agree with him,” she says of Summers’s comments. “The males have quit working. We need to motivate young men to put in the work necessary to accomplish things.”

But the contrast with the girls’ dedication makes the victory all the sweeter.

“You just can’t accomplish something like this unless you have willing students,” Bonner says. “Sumter Academy has the finest minds I have ever dealt with.”