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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Campbell boasts Math Bowl champs

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

The little metal plaques down two sides of the State Math Bowl Perpetual Trophy read like some sort of chant: Punahou, Punahou, Punahou, McKinley, Punahou ...

Iolani, Iolani, Roosevelt, Iolani, Iolani.

Campbell High School principal Gail Awakuni runs her finger down the plaques that date to 1978. She taps the spot where the 2003 champions will have their name engraved in brass. "See? We'll be the first Leeward school. First time."

Awakuni acts happily surprised, but some suspect she had this planned all along.

From left, Campbell High School math teacher Carol Domen, students Cary Kawamoto, Gary Ramirez and Joan Suniga, and math teacher Aaron Lee share in the glory of being the first Leeward school to win the state Math Bowl.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Two years ago, Campbell didn't have a math team. Last year, Campbell's math team placed third-to-last in the large-school division of the Math Bowl. This year, the three-member team just went to participate, not to win. The night before the competition, the team stayed up late alternating between playing video games and studying while one of their coaches, math teacher Carol Domen, bugged them to get enough sleep.

"Yeah, we're totally underdogs. If you see pictures of us from that day, we weren't even dressed," says math-team member Gary Ramirez.

"We didn't even bring our own cameras," adds Cary Kawamoto, another team member.

At the halfway mark of the competition held last month at Brigham Young University-Hawai'i, the Campbell team realized that they were five points behind the leaders. "I remember joking around, saying that if we got all the rest of the questions right, we could win this thing," Ramirez says.

And they did.

Math teacher Aaron Lee e-mailed Awakuni from his cellular phone as soon as the results were entered.

She deleted the message. "I thought, 'Who is sending me this thing?' " she says.

Lee tried a second time.

"This is from Aaron Lee," he sent. "This is for real."

As proof, the students saved their sheets of scratch paper where they worked out the problems in topics ranging from algebra to trigonometry. They had the scratch paper laminated. "Historical documents," Lee says.

Campbell's rise to math-team glory goes back three years, when Awakuni recruited Lee for her faculty. He had been a math-team champion while a student at Moanalua where Awakuni used to teach. His high school math career is well-known to his students. "Mr. Lee got the highest score on the hardest Advanced Placement calculus exam," says math team member Joan Suniga.

Lee winces. "I try not to brag," he says.

Lee studied computer animation at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

Gary Ramirez, Cary Kawamoto and Joan Suniga, this year's math bowl champions, graduated from Campbell and have college plans.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

"My third year I spent a couple of days just in front of the computer," he says. "I'd go into the windowless building in the morning and come out of the building when it was dark. That was it. I couldn't handle it. I thought teaching would be more fulfilling."

Lee was always a whiz at math, displaying a talent with numbers as early as the first grade. He quotes the movie "Spiderman" to talk about his dedication to teaching. "With great power comes great responsibility," he said. "My power is math so it's my responsibility to teach."

Awakuni hired Lee while he was still working on his teaching credentials from the University of Phoenix through an internship program. "Contingent on his hiring was building a math team," she says.

Awakuni pushed for the math team because she believed it would help boost test scores. "For me, it wasn't about winning," she said. "My speculation was students would get practical experience thinking on their feet, the pressure of competitive situations and that they'd be exposed to the standards of other schools."

Ramirez, for one, says the math team helped his SAT scores. "I went from 690 to 760 in math," he says.

This year, Lee also started teaching an AP calculus class. He had 13 students enrolled. Next year, there will be 20.

Kawamoto, Suniga and Ramirez won't be in that class. All three graduated last Friday. Kawamoto, who wrote for the school paper, competed in mock trial and participated in string orchestra, is heading to Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., to study computer science. The college specializes in science, mathematics and engineering education.

Suniga, an officer and "most valuable female shooter" on her ROTC rifle squad, is going to the University of Hawai'i-Manoa to study electrical engineering.

Ramirez, a golfer, OIA first-team volleyball player and Campbell scholar athlete, is also heading to UH where he will study mechanical engineering. He's hoping to earn a walk-on spot on the men's volleyball team.

"They're all so balanced" Awakuni says. "It's not just math. It's math and everything else."

Meanwhile, Awakuni is focusing on "math and everything else" in a sweeping schoolwide reform.

Starting in the fall, the 'Ewa Beach school will be on a new bell schedule. The longer class periods will ultimately allow students to graduate with more credits. Campbell will also institute an "academy system" that will have all ninth- and 10th-grade classes in the same building.

In the past three years, the dropout rate at Campbell, which was the worst on the island, has decreased by half. The amount of scholarships won by Campbell students has gone from $1.3 million to $2.4 million.

Says Kawamoto, "Campbell's moving up. Breaking the stereotypes"

"Some parents have this idea that there are all these gangs on campus and people carrying guns," Suniga says.

Ramirez adds, "That no one cares and that there are no good students."

"These students end up fighting hard, harder because of those stereotypes," Awakuni says. "They're underdogs. They come up with pride. That's Campbell pride."

Lee groans when asked if he sees a repeat victory next year. "I don't know," he says, shaking his head, "I set the bar too high. Too soon, too high."

In almost the same breath, he presents a packet of papers to Awakuni.

"Hey, there's another competition I just learned about," he tells her. "It's the American Mathematical Competition."

He explains that the competition his team just won is like the math Super Bowl. This other one is like the math Olympics.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.