Dozens of Mundelein area students were hunkered over math tests Sunday afternoon, and it's not because they did anything wrong.
"I'm here for the money," explained 13-year-old Carl Schoenfield, an eighth-grader at Carl Sandburg Middle School. "I think I have a pretty good chance. I'm just that confident in my abilities."
Area banks and businesses donated $4,000 worth of cash prizes for Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz's inaugural Mayor's Cup Math Challenge.
Competitors from sixth through eighth grades battled each other for a top prize of $500. Freshmen and sophomores from the village's two high schools were in another category for a first prize of $750. And the high schools' juniors and seniors competed for a $1,000 top prize. Lesser amounts were awarded for second and third place finishes. The cash prizes were sponsored by Garden Fresh, Fifth Third Bank, Mundelein Community Bank, McDonald's, Northside Bank and Consumers Co-op.
"Math is very important," Lentz said during his greeting to competitors. "That's why local businesses ponied up the prize money."
Fremont Middle School eighth-grader Abbie Lukas said she turned out for Sunday's event after competing in her first math competition a few weeks ago.
"It was hard," the 14-year-old Abbie said. "But I like to challenge myself."
Her pal and fellow Fremont eighth-grader Sommer Ray, 13, had never competed at any math event before and were surprised to see such a large crowd.
"We thought it would be smaller," she said. "I didn't realize each school would send so many people."
Lentz envisioned the competition after hearing about something similar in Kentucky. With four elementary school districts, a high school district and Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Lentz believes this is a community-building event as much as it is a competition to improve math skills and excite students about learning.
"Future innovation is going to come down to math skills," Lentz said. "This is a way to address that and promote community building."
The students were split among several classrooms throughout Mundelein High School and worked individually and then as teams.
Lentz was pleased and surprised by the turnout but isn't resting on his laurels.
"I would love to have twice the number next year," he said. "We've been lagging as a country, and we need more high-tech educated workers."
Nathan Cartland, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Sandburg, expressed similar concerns about math education to those of the mayor. Currently taking pre-calculus at the high school, he's worried about running out of math class options by the time he reaches his senior year.
"By my senior year I think my math classes will all run out," he said. "Because colleges like to see four years of math on transcripts, I'll have to find something somewhere."