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Math Contest Builds Student Confidence

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Buffalo Elementary

Math Contest Builds Student Confidence

March is often filled with talk of basketball tournaments, but in one small town in West Virginia, the community rallied around a local elementary school to help students win a national math contest. In Buffalo Elementary School, Principal Penny Mullins and her staff used Imagine Learning’s March Math Madness contest to motivate her students to practice their math skills. Soon, the community became involved and brought dinner to the school to support students working late on their Imagine Math assignments. Buffalo Elementary students shone throughout the tournament, and their dedication led them to claim the championship in March 2021.

The Landscape

Buffalo Elementary School serves students in the lowest socioeconomic status in the county, but educators have never let that define them or their students. Instead, they focus on what the kids can do and what they need to learn. Principal Penny Mullins believes “helplessness is a learned skill” and decided that it won’t be a part of the school culture at Buffalo.

In her first year at the school, Mullins has focused on building relationships to create an atmosphere of excitement around education. She works closely with the parents and families to make them feel like they are a part of the school community. And she and her team have worked to turn the often dreaded “phone call home” into a positive outreach instead of a negative one.

“Everyone wants children to succeed in school, but sometimes we’re just not sure how to best support it.”—Penny Mullins, Principal, Buffalo Elementary

The Tools

Buffalo Elementary uses Imagine Math as a part of their everyday math instruction. It’s part of a county initiative funded by the Education Alliance’s Energizing STEM effort with support from the American Electric Power Foundation.

Principal Mullins requires teachers to integrate the program into their instruction for specific amounts of time throughout the day. Even when learning was completely remote due to the pandemic, Imagine Math provided consistency for the students and helped maintain their education.

“In our K–2 classrooms, students rotate to different centers, and one includes computers with Imagine Math,” said Mullins. In the older grades, teachers use it as a tool for whole-group instruction. 

“The kids love it,” added Mullins, sharing that the avatars and adaptive help create an engaging learning experience from the first time they log in.

March math madness

The Competition

Mr. Walls, the lead math teacher, came to Principal Mullins early in the year to ask for support for the March Math Madness contest. “He wanted to use it as a source of motivation for our third- and fourth-grade students,” said Mullins, “so we devised a plan of daily goals to help keep students on track.” Students met (and surpassed) the daily goals quickly, and soon the momentum snowballed.

“Students were asking to stay after school,” said Mullins, who organized transportation to bring students home and even coordinated with local church groups to provide food for students as they worked late to complete math assignments.

Mullins also lauded the peer-to-peer support throughout the school. Teachers worked with their classes to make posters and decorations showing their support for the third and fourth graders. Kindergarten students even made cards of encouragement, and their progress through the contest helped the entire school rally around a common goal of academic success.

“Everyone wants children to succeed in school,” said Mullins, “but sometimes we’re just not sure how to best support it.” The March Math Madness contest gave the community a way to focus on academics and track student progress throughout the tournament.

As Buffalo progressed from the Sweet 16 to the Elite 8 and beyond, excitement grew throughout the county. When Buffalo Elementary claimed the title, the local legislature passed a resolution honoring Buffalo Elementary for its success in this contest.

“This is a game-changer for them,” said Mullins. “They now know firsthand what hard work will do.”

The Outcome

“It has made a difference in their skill level,” said Mullins of the contest. Buffalo Elementary teachers follow a pacing guide and have noted that students are far ahead of what was expected.

“The program is adaptive,” said Mullins. “It offers support and builds a process of learning math, which not all programs do.” Plus, their success in the contest helped give them confidence. In fact, on the day we spoke to Mullins, her third and fourth graders were competing in a local math contest.

Mullins explained that at the beginning of the school year, the teacher walked around the classroom and offered support as needed. However, during the math contest, educators saw a shift and were encouraged by the increasing peer-to-peer assistance and encouragement.

“That’s priceless,” said Mullins as she described students getting out of their seats to help their classmates with challenging topics. “Throughout the competition, they came together as a team, and that’s something they’ll never forget.”

But the impact doesn’t stop with the students. In her third year as an administrator and first as principal, Mullins shared that participating in this contest has helped her “grow as a professional and as a person, and understand more deeply what these students need to succeed.”

After months of hard work, the community hosted a parade to celebrate the students’ win. After some cajoling, Principal Mullins rode in a seat of honor, on top of the fire truck closing out the parade, to celebrate the success of her students.

Read More: West Virginia Elementary School named “March Math Madness” Champion in National Contest

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