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7th grader selected from 20,000 to compete in national math contest

Aye Aye, 14, is one of 16 students who were selected from over 20,000 applicants to compete in the National Championship of the NBA sponsored board game Math Hoops.

Seventh-grader Aye Aye with math teacher Melanie Young at Southwark Middle School pep rally.
Seventh-grader Aye Aye with math teacher Melanie Young at Southwark Middle School pep rally.Read moreJessica Griffin/Staff

Southwark seventh grader Aye Aye entered school four years ago not knowing a word of English, but this weekend she will be recognized nationally for her skills in math.

Aye Aye, 14, is one of 16 students selected from over 20,000 applicants to compete in California at the National Championship for the NBA-sponsored board game Math Hoops.

Math Hoops is a concept launched by the NBA in 2013 that combines basketball and math, giving students in third through eighth grades a  way to practice basic math skills while scoring "baskets" on a board modeled after a basketball court.

Aye Aye, who moved to South Philadelphia from Thailand, has had the support of the Sixers Youth Foundation, which sponsors the game for over 750 students at 13 locations in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

This week, the Sixers' Dunk Squad surprised Aye Aye with a pep rally, complete with a customized jersey and a send-off video from the Sixers, her school, and the city.

On Friday, the math star will head to Stanford University, where she will compete in the national tournament against 15 students from nine states for trophies and signed basketball paraphernalia.   To qualify, students had to complete at least 30 games and 10 math worksheets and then submit a video application. Winners were selected by Learn Fresh, a nonprofit that works with the NBA.

Math teacher Melanie Young introduced the game to students in her after-school math club at Southwark in the fall, never imagining that one of them would make the nationals.

"It's brought a lot of cool opportunities to our school," she said. "A lot of times you hear sad things about the Philadelphia School District, about a deficit, but we don't really appreciate the wonderful students we have here and all the great work they're doing against all odds and with limited resources."

As for Aye Aye, Math Hoops has helped her find a place in the community.

"Most of my friends are in math club," she said lighting up at the mention of them.  "I like all my classes, as long as I'm with my friends."

It wasn't always so.  When her father first moved Aye Aye and her three siblings to America, she said, she was often bullied.  She was nervous and struggled to learn the language so she could communicate with her peers and act as translator for her two older siblings and father, who do not speak English.

With the help of Southwark, a South Philadelphia K-8 school where about 60 percent of the students have qualified as English-language learners, Aye Aye found the support and community she needed to excel.

"She's an amazing student, a student that's worked really, really hard and a student who's been so proactive," principal Andrew Lukov said of Aye Aye, who is now at grade level in English and math. "With Aye Aye, I'm not surprised. She has that tenacity and that drive in her."

Aye Aye says she is excited to see California for the first time and make Philadelphia proud.

"I sometimes miss my family in Thailand, but I have my dad…. My dad was so excited he told all of our relatives in Thailand," she said. After a moment, she added: "I do like [Philadelphia] better than Thailand."

Standing in her oversize jersey at the pep rally, she smiled as cameras flashed and her class cheered.