Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

Hopewell kids’ efforts add up
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Feb 10, 2014, 13:34

JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Dupont Elementary School fourth-graders Kalyn Litaker, Kayla Black and Joanna Estrada play First in Math on Friday.

HOPEWELL ­— Kids stare fixated at the screen, moving colorful figures and trying to solve puzzles. For their efforts, some earn scores that make their friends jealous.

This isn’t the latest Nintendo game. This is math in Patricia Howell’s fourth-grade class at Dupont Elementary School.

They are using a nationwide online program called First in Math that helps develop math skills from second through eighth grade, and they have become the top class out of 1,400 participating in the state.

Hopewell has been using the program since 2009 for second through fifth grade at a cost of $3,100 a year, or roughly $7 per student, but this year the competition has really taken off.

Howell said her class was around 25th place and moving up in the rankings until they finally got around second place.

“And I said ‘Guys, we can do this.’ And they were like ‘OK!’ and we were like boom, in first place. And we’ve been there ever since,” she said.

Howell wrote down when they reached first place in the state on Nov. 14.

“When we became first in the state, I think it dawned on them that that’s really what they were,” Howell said.

Each child has a laptop computer at their desk and each kid is given an access code so they can play online at home. The progression and their scores are uploaded to a server to track everything. Each accomplishment gets them a certain number of virtual stickers based on difficulty. Kids get a certificate when they reach certain milestones for the number of virtual stickers.

Howell told them that if they got into the top 25 in the nation, then she would take them to see an IMAX movie. Last week they were 44th, but Howell noted that they have lost time due to snow days and states in the South have shot up during that time. There are about 8,000 fourth-grade classes competing nationwide.

Being at the top has driven the kids’ competitiveness with other schools and several in the class compete with each other as well.

“They walk into my classroom and it’s ‘Hey, how are you?’ and they’re putting their backpacks away and their discussion, and the next thing I know is its deadly silent in my classroom and they are ... working on First in Math,” Howell said.

The top three kids in the class each day get to wear a necklace that shows they had the top scores for the previous day.

Coulter Sheppard, who was wearing the necklace for having the highest score on Friday at 196 stickers, said some games can be easier to get stickers for him. He said you can earn more stickers as the games get harder. “Sometimes you just have to think,” he said.

Coulter said he liked the competition.

“It actually hands out a bit of competitive spirit if you’re maintaining a bit of awards like this,” he said.

Two other classrooms in Dupont Elementary rank 11th and 12th in the state.

“We’ve got several other classes that are doing great and get a lot of use and showing advancement with the students, but Ms. Howell’s class has really excelled,” said Brian Capaldo, spokesman for Hopewell Public Schools.

He said the class had it all worked out how many points each student needed to be in the top spot nationally.

Kids can choose from various games that test different types of math skills, from geometry and measurements to word problems and logic puzzles. The online program adapts to kids’ progression. It gets harder as they answer more questions correctly.

“When you get to the higher levels, it gets bad,” said fourth-grader Ashlie Still.

One game requires kids to combine different numbers using multiplication, division, addition and subtraction to reach a certain total. Another game requires kids to pick which combinations of measurements are equal: such as 14 inches, 1 foot and 2 inches, and 9+5 inches. Another gets them to figure out how much change is need after making a purchase.

“As they complete a skillset, ... then more bonus games pop up,” Howell said.

She said everyone likes the bonus games and they act as like a reward for completing tasks.

“They can actually see their progress and see where everybody is,” Howell said.

Teachers can also check how they are progressing in each skillset.

“It’s their morning work and sometimes I’ll filter it into my math class. ... I’ll teach my information and then I’ll say ‘You have 15 minutes on First in Math,’” Howell said.

Alysa Flowers, the school leader with 11,667 stickers, said it gives her something educational to do when she is bored.

“If I don’t have anything to do at home, I just get on it and play and win stickers,” she said. “It just makes math fun.”

Howell said the First in Math has really helped the kids with timed tests. She said they are able to answer questions quickly.

“If they went into McDonald’s and ordered something, in their mind they would snap out how much change I’m supposed to have where the other person behind the cash register is looking at what the cash register is going to say,” Howell said.

But some tougher questions might require pencil and paper to work out.

Howell said it is nice to see the kids getting recognition from their classmates, teachers and even competing schools. Even Superintendent John Fahey came in to recognize the students’ efforts, giving them a boost of confidence.

She said the game is having an impact on how the kids see themselves.

“Every once and a while I’ll get this frantic hand and I’ll go ‘Yes?’ and  they’ll go ‘I’m at 5,500 now. I’m a genius!’” Howell said.

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