Math skills add up to success for day schools

Day schools are typically known for their comprehensive approach to Jewish studies, but not as much for the secular education they offer. Now, a few Jewish day schools in Los Angeles have proven that they’re just as strong at academics as they are in religious curriculum.

This year, both the Conservative Pressman Academy and Orthodox Maimonides Academy, which cover early childhood through eighth grade, placed among the top schools in Los Angeles in the Math League, an annual contest measuring middle school students on mathematics principles and ranking schools based on scores. In the Los Angeles region, Pressman came in third (out of the top five schools) in the sixth and eighth grade, and second in the seventh. Maimonides placed fourth among sixth- and eighth-grade students, and third among seventh-graders. 

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school at Pressman, said, “Oftentimes there is a question of whether or not the level of general studies is at the same level of other schools. The results indicate that, at least in math, our schools are competing at a very high level.”

Each year, more than 1 million students in the United States and Canada participate in the Math League. Schools have the option to select which of their students participate or, like Maimonides and Pressman, may require that all students compete. On the individual level, Pressman students Daniel Schrager, Daniel Ornstein, Mira Berenbaum, Avi Bernat-Kunin and Noah Mermelstein received some of the top scores in the region. 

Pressman students have competed for more than a decade, and Allison Sostchen, general studies director at Maimonides, said her school has been part of the contest for the past 12 years, and that the faculty and staff put an emphasis on mathematics “because it’s essential from kindergarten straight through eighth grade. Students need it as a basic life skill.”

She attributes Maimonides’ success in math to the interdisciplinary and competitive approach that the staff takes to the subject. Third-graders learn math by starting their own businesses in the classroom and balancing accounts, and each week, a tricky math question is displayed in the hallway for everyone to solve. “They’re always being pushed every step of the way,” mathematics department chair William Walton said. “They do [the problems] for the sheer joy of math.”

Walton said that in each grade at the school, math is seen as a subject that’s “fun and challenging. It’s about taking a problem, no matter how complex, thinking clearly and deliberately about it, and working your way through it.”

Like Maimonides, Pressman places special attention on math. In particular, Malkus said, his teachers prepare the middle school’s 105 students for high-school mathematics. Math has “sparked an interest in students, and their desire to do well in it has increased over the past few years,” Malkus said. “They take a lot of pride in their work.”

Pressman middle-school general studies teacher Carla Schultes added, “This year, our students performed so well. They will, hopefully, continue to do well in the future.”