By Ben Joravsky

Every year some of the city’s brightest public high school freshmen compete in an algebra contest, and every year the victor hails from one of the usual high-achieving schools–usually Lincoln Park, Lane Tech, or Whitney Young.

Until this year. The winner of last month’s north-side regional was Chuong Dac of Roosevelt High School. “I don’t know if it would be as big a deal if the winner came from Lane or Lincoln Park, but Chuong’s success is a pretty big deal around here,” says Noreen Rapp, an algebra teacher and chairman of Roosevelt’s math department. “They don’t expect the winners to come from Roosevelt. We’re happy to prove them wrong.”

As Rapp puts its, Roosevelt (at Kimball and Wilson) is one of those neighborhood schools that are easy to overlook. Most of its students come from surrounding Albany Park, an amalgam of working-class blacks and whites and immigrants from eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America.

“It’s not that much different from when I graduated from here [in 1950],” says Manny Weincord, who teaches gym and coaches Roosevelt’s boys’ basketball team. “It’s still the sons and daughters of working-class immigrants, looking to knock through the door of opportunity. It’s just that the door doesn’t swing open as wide as it used to.”

If the get-ahead aspirations of the school’s working-class students haven’t changed, the rest of the world has. Parents are far more selective than they were 40 years ago. Most of Albany Park’s best students go to private or parochial schools or to Lane, Whitney Young, Von Steuben, Lincoln Park, and the other public schools that limit enrollment by test scores. (For what it’s worth, Roosevelt lags behind the city average on standardized achievement tests. About 30 and 18 percent of students score at or above national levels in math and reading respectively.)

Chuong Dac, for instance, was not the sort of high-achieving eighth-grader that selective high schools welcome. Born in Vietnam, he and his family moved to California in 1993 and settled in Chicago three years ago. Coincidentally, he now lives in the same apartment on Montrose that Weincord lived in 50 years ago.

“I wanted to go to Lane or Von Steuben,” says Dac. “But I didn’t score high enough in reading and they didn’t accept me. So I went to Roosevelt. It’s just down the street from where I live.”

In a way this was a lucky break, because Roosevelt’s strongest department is math. “There’s a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect,” says Rapp. “We’re all in it together. We don’t have any special frills. We don’t even have our own desks. We have one little office–about eight-by-eight feet–with three desks. So we have to carry our mounds of paper wherever we go. But we get along. Many of our teachers are involved in other activities. Adnon Shamoon is the soccer coach, Rob Forst is the football coach, Van Walters coaches baseball, and Jerry Taylor is the girls’ basketball coach. We have a lot of school spirit.”

Dac was assigned to Taylor’s algebra class. “It was kind of early in the school year that I noticed he had special talent,” says Taylor. “At first he was a little bit shy, and he wouldn’t say too much unless you asked him. But then it became apparent he has something special–he knew all the answers. And you’d see some of the other kids wanting to sit by him so he could help them.”

Taylor suggested that Dac participate in the algebra competition. At first Dac wasn’t sure he wanted to. Roosevelt didn’t even have an organized math team that met on a regular basis to practice, as did many other schools.

“But Mr. Taylor said we could get extra credit for taking the test,” says Dac. “I took some of the practice sheets and did them and thought, ‘I can do this.'”

The contest he prepared for is one of several sponsored by the Chicago Citywide Math League. Roosevelt is in the north region. Each region holds three contests in all, and the top scoring students meet in a citywide showdown in the spring.

“Last year we surprised people when one of our freshmen, a kid from Romania named Livius Cazan, finished third in the regionals and fourth in the citywide match,” says Rapp. “We don’t have a team that meets regularly to practice like some of the other schools. I guess it’s because our math teachers are so busy coaching sports. We don’t do anything fancy to prepare. Last year we took the Kimball Avenue bus to the test site over at DeVry. It was me and about a dozen kids. We transferred at Belmont to go to DeVry but the Belmont bus was running slow and when we got off at our stop we had to run or we’d be late.”

This year’s test was October 3 at Lane Tech. “There were a whole bunch of kids in a big room,” says Dac. “They passed out the tests and it got real quiet. I had 50 minutes to answer 20 questions. I was a little nervous. Then I got into it.”

The first question was the easiest–“Alice paid $41.85 for a dress. The sales tax rate was 8%. What was the price of the dress before the tax was added on?” (The answer’s $38.75)

“It wasn’t that much different than the stuff in Mr. Taylor’s class,” says Dac. “People don’t know this, but I was always good in math. I think ’cause I’m not so good in reading they don’t understand that. But I didn’t have any trouble with the test. It only took me 20 or 25 minutes to do.”

Two days later he got the good news. “I saw Ms. Rapp in the hallway and she said, ‘Guess what? One of our students won.’ She thought it was someone else. Then she came back and said, ‘It’s you! You won!’ I was so excited. I just stood there. I didn’t know what to say.”

They gave him a blue ribbon and principal Miguel Trujillo plastered Dac’s name on the big sign at the corner of Kimball and Wilson. He was the talk of the school. “It’s a great honor for Roosevelt,” says Weincord. “I know that apartment he lives in–it’s only two and a half rooms. The kid must come from humble origins, like so many of us did. God bless him.”

Taylor and Rapp are thinking of advancing Dac to a higher level of math. “In the past, kids like Chuong transferred to other schools, but we want to keep him at Roosevelt,” says Rapp. “We can meet his math needs. We might move him to advanced algebra-trig this year and next year geometry and precalculus and then junior year advanced-placement calculus. We can show the world that Roosevelt can meet the needs of the brightest students.”

The victory comes at a time when Roosevelt’s already on a bit of a roll. The school’s soccer team recently advanced to the city semifinals, and its chief alumni group held a get-together in Las Vegas that attracted about 750 graduates and raised over $26,000 for scholarships and programs.

“I wish I had known about the algebra kid when we were in Vegas–it would have gone over big,” says Arnie Kamen, director of the Roosevelt High School Athletic Fund, which sponsored the reunion. “I’m gonna put the kid in a letter I write to our members. They’ll be so proud of the kid.”

As for Dac, he’s taking it in stride. He says his greatest challenge isn’t even the next round in the algebra contest (scheduled for December), where he will encounter such questions as this one, from last year’s contest: “If (5x-1)4 is expanded, what will be the coefficient of x4?” (It’s 625.)

“My biggest goal is to make the frosh-soph basketball team,” he says. “I love playing basketball. I got a pretty good three-point shot.”

His admirers wish him well, though Weincord couldn’t help cracking, “Hey, good thing he knows math. If he can’t make the team he can keep the books.” Making the team might be a long shot. Over 70 kids showed up for the first day of tryouts, which were organized by frosh-soph coach Tarrie Blakely, an ex-marine the kids call “Boss.”

“I don’t know if Boss knows who I am yet,” says Dac. “I’m only five-four. I get lost among the taller kids. I think I gotta take some shots. I gotta take some threes. That’ll get Boss’s attention. That’s the way I did it in algebra. I caught everyone’s attention.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jerry Taylor, Chuong Dac, Noreen Rapp photo by Jon Randolph.