Meet Fallon Middle School Volunteer and OneDublin.org Difference Maker Chan Fonseka
The adult volunteers that tirelessly offer their energy and time at all 10 Dublin public school sites are as diverse as our community. There are many that fulfill key roles in Parent Faculty Clubs (PFC) or School Site Councils (SSC). Even more parents/guardians help out in individual or multiple classrooms. Others simply read to students or re-stack books in the library. And some are leading new initiatives that never existed until this year.
On April 28th, the Dublin Unified School District will host their District Recognition Awards at the District Boardroom. For those that may be unfamiliar, this is an annual event that honors Certificated, Classified and District staff members. Additionally, adult volunteers are recognized. The honorees are there by virtue of nomination letters that may be submitted by anyone. That said, there are countless others that deserve equal praise. OneDublin.org has initiated the process of approaching each site Principal to solicit the names of volunteers that are truly making a positive impact at their respective school sites. This ongoing series will run up through the actual District Recognition Awards. We are taking this opportunity to salute some of the many unsung heroes that are making their schools an even better place, and our proud to introduce our first OneDublin.org Difference Maker, parent Chan Fonseka, and how he championed bringing the Math Olympiads program to Fallon Middle School.
Chan and his family have lived in the Bay Area for several years – including stops in Fremont and Los Altos. He attained a Bachelor’s in Engineering and Computer Science from Dartmouth College and then a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. Mr. Fonseka is employed as a software engineer with Oracle. In 2012, the family decided to move from Los Altos. They took a very analytical approach and created a spreadsheet that demarcated the benefits of each and every community. In the end, they elected to relocate to Dublin. Daughter Maya is a 4th grader at Dougherty Elementary and son Rohan is a 7th grader at Fallon Middle School. Chan is being featured largely due to his initiation of the Math Olympiad program at Fallon. For two years, Rohan greatly benefitted from this elementary school program in Los Altos. When he realized that this opportunity did not yet exist in Dublin, Chan championed the cause with Fallon Principal Sheri Sweeney.
OneDublin.org: One of your primary volunteer highlights has been the establishment of the Math Olympiad team at Fallon. Please articulate why you were so passionate about this program and how it might benefit not only your son/daughter, but for other students.
Chan Fonseka: “My son took the Math Olympiads (conducted by MOEMS) while in Grades 4 and 5 at elementary school in Los Altos. He went from being not that proficient (nor interested) in Math at the start of Grade 4 to the complete opposite by Grade 5. I give much of the credit for this to his Math Olympiad coach at the time, who in fact recognized my son’s turnaround by presenting him with the ‘Coach’s 180 Award’ at the end of Grade 4. When I looked at the nature of the Math Olympiad questions I found them to be both challenging and engaging: a lot like the puzzles and brainteasers I enjoyed solving as a kid and do so to this day.
“When we moved to Dublin and Rohan enrolled at Fallon in the Fall of 2013 (after completing his transition year via homeschooling), my wife and I were keen for Rohan – by now two years ahead of his grade level in Math – to continue to participate in the Math Olympiads program. We found, however, that Fallon did not have a Math Olympiads team nor any opportunities to get coached for these contests. I decided to volunteer my services to coach Fallon sixth graders for the Division E (lower division) Olympiads, as the primary focus of the new Fallon Math Club (FMC) – which Rohan helped form (and served as its first President). I felt that not just my son, but all Fallon sixth graders would benefit from the exposure to the non-traditional type of math that this program promotes. I felt that the emphasis on problem solving and logical thinking would complement the existing math curriculum well. The program delves into not only many interesting topics in math such as Motion Problems, Prime Numbers, Cryptarithms, and Sequences, but also focuses on mastering general tools and techniques that can then be applied to many different types of problems.”
OneDublin.org: In the second year, the response to this program was overwhelming. However, you couldn’t possibly manage this effort alone. Explain how you were successful in encouraging/recruiting additional coaches to join in.
Fonseka: “The first year we managed to sign up 25 students in October – well after Fall classes had already begun – of which only 17 elected to actually take the Olympiads. The others were still part of FMC, and joined in the problem-solving, games and fun challenges that quickly became an integral part of their Wednesday afternoons after school. The official FMC Math Olympiads team not only took part in all five Olympiads, but brought honor to Fallon by securing the Highest Achievement plaque, which is the top award given by MOEMS and goes out to those teams (out of about 4000) finishing in the top 10% nationally. The year culminated in a grand Awards Ceremony in the Fallon MPR combined with the 1st Annual Fallon Math Games; an exciting combination of mathematics and athleticism which brought the curtain down on a wonderful first year. The Euclid Yellows ended up being the inaugural winners of the Games, while the Mathlete of the Year award went to sixth grader Manav Kant, the Olympiad team’s high scorer with 22 out of a possible 25. He presented the team’s Highest Achievement plaque to the school where it sits today in the trophy cabinet.
“Given the success of the program and my son’s keenness for me to continue with it, we manned a table at fall registration in 2014 and were shocked to get about 250 signups. Quickly determining that I had neither the bandwidth nor the physical capability to properly coach that many students, I announced that there would be a placement test to pick 25 students for the club (with mandatory participation in the Math Olympiads). We had about 200 students show up at the MPR to take this test, which comprised some Olympiad-type questions, a few brainteasers, an interest survey and a series of hands-on math games. The whole thing took over two hours; several prior-year mathletes and their parents volunteered their time to help make it run smoothly.
“Students selected! Or so we thought. Once the names were announced we were inundated with requests from the remaining parents to accept their children also. With the able administrative assistance of Samanthi – my wife – and Lindy Chia – parent to two of my students – I turned to other parents for help, and within a week had lined up two more parent-coaches, opening up club membership and coaching to fifty more students. Some parents whose kids were still not picked, however, brought their concerns to the principal Sheri Sweeney. Sheri had been a pillar of support in our formative year, providing all the logistical assistance we needed from the school and even serving as Teacher Advisor since the math department did not have any bandwidth at that late stage. She gently inquired as to whether there was any way we could accommodate the remaining hundred plus students. I decided to mass mail all the remaining parents soliciting even more volunteers in the form of coaches and coaching assistants. More parents did step forward, and about two weeks later we had four more coaches and six assistants in total, at which point we had enough manpower to offer a spot to every single student who took the placement test! The final roll came to 192 students, or about 18% of the student body.”
OneDublin.org: You have the benefit of working close by in Pleasanton and perhaps some latitude in your schedule. How would you encourage other parents to become more involved in their school sites – in any capacity?
Fonseka: “The first step is to find the time. A working parent with a long commute has neither the time nor the energy to volunteer at school. Such parents, if they can take advantage of a work-from-home policy, could discuss their volunteer plans with their employer and seek their support for a mutually acceptable window to be involved with their child’s school. I have the good fortune to have a manager at my day job that not only understands my desire to help these students, but actively supports it by allowing me the flexibility to structure my work hours around my coaching window. Parents who work locally or stay-at-home parents may find it easier to set up volunteering time. In my opinion, if every parent could donate just one or two hours per week it would enrich the lives of all the kids immeasurably – not to mention provide immense satisfaction for themselves as they get to impart their knowledge to the next generation and receive immediate and rewarding feedback.
“The second step is to think about what you are good at, and what you love doing, and see if those passions or skills have a fit within the school environment. Volunteering is much more fun if you enjoy what you are doing during your donated time. When I was a kid I loved playing games and solving puzzles. Now I enjoy reliving those days through the lives and minds of excited youngsters making the same discoveries that I once did.
“Once you have the time and the focus, reach out to your school site; to the PFC, relevant department head or principal if necessary, and let them know how you would like to help. You may be surprised at how much goodwill you will generate! By helping establish this program at Fallon I feel I’ve created a win-win situation where the students receive an enrichment opportunity in an area of high value; the school’s reputation is enhanced; and I am able to provide a service to the community and receive the satisfaction that goes along with it.”
OneDublin.org: Please comment on how the weekly activities in the Math Olympiad may potentially benefit students as they approach the new Common Core Standards and SBAC evaluations.
Fonseka: “We currently have seven different coaches, each one responsible for a different team of up to 30 students. We have monthly grading parties at my house where the coaches and assistants get together for brunch, grade the Math Olympiad papers, submit the results to MOEMS, and discuss teaching strategies and the program in general. We have decentralized the coaching to allow each coach to use their own curriculum and coaching style. Some coaches focus on doing a lot of practice papers individually in class. Others have the students work in groups and demonstrate answers on the board. Still others use various math aids, props and games.
“My own style combines individual and collaborative problem-solving with active, hands-on games that are not always related to math but do draw upon the natural creativity and competitive nature of middle school students. I use games and competitions to get the students warmed up, engaged and excited before foisting a difficult math problem or two upon them. My coaching style is old-school, with no calculators, computers or online activities. All I require from my charges are pencil, paper and a fertile mind. I encourage creative and out-of-the-box thinking, and multiple approaches to solving the same problem. This provides a natural way of checking their work. It also dovetails perfectly with the MOEMS principles as well as the Common Core approach which is more focused on a deeper understanding as opposed to rote knowledge or memorization.
“Math Olympiad problems are often very wordy and require a substantial exercise in comprehension and internalization in order to merely understand what is being asked. A reliance on simple first principles and logical thinking are often all that is necessary to develop a solution path; and the program attempts to supplement this approach by gradually exposing students to different structured methods, as well as tricks and shortcuts, that can be easily learned and then reused in new situations. The experienced Olympiad-taker eventually builds up a useful arsenal of problem-solving tools that will serve them well in many future aspects of their academic as well as day-to-day lives.”
OneDublin.org: Anything else that you would like to add?
Fonseka: “The Math Olympiads were done by March 4th. Many of the FMC students are now being coached for the Purple Comet (www.purplecomet.org), which is a much more challenging math competition involving collaborative problem solving in teams of up to six students. Parents coaching for the Purple Comet have extended their volunteer time to be 90 minutes every Wednesday until the April 22nd competition.
“FMC students have also been divided into four “Houses”, and will cap their year of math enrichment at the 2nd Annual Math Games by taking part in a series of unique “mathletic” events in front of their parents and peers in the Fallon gym on Friday, May 29th at 6pm. The Games winners will be announced at the concluding Awards Ceremony where all Olympiad participants will also be recognized; the top performers will receive their Awards; Fallon will receive any Achievement Awards it qualifies for; and “Mathlete of the Year” will be crowned: all in one fun-filled evening!”
So, we have an example of a parent that lived through the positive experience of an after-school enrichment program, brought it to the Principal’s attention and then started it. Today, with the help of many other coaches, the Math Olympiad concept is thriving at Fallon Middle School. OneDublin.org would like to thank Chan Fonseka for his willingness to be profiled and for sharing this wonderful story. Because of this, numerous Fallon students and their families will gain from the efforts of a parent that transported his love of mathematics to the benefit of an entire school site. Thank you, Chan.