BAYONET POINT — It wasn't long ago that Kaitlyn Ferrier used a single word to describe her thoughts about math.
"I was never good at math," the Bayonet Point Middle School sixth-grader admitted. "I hated it."
Hers appeared to be a common view at the school, where math results on the latest FCAT exam dropped dramatically from a year earlier, costing Bayonet Point Middle its A rating from the state.
So this year, principal Mike Asbell gave his teachers a mission. They set a goal of improving the number of students achieving proficiency on the FCAT by 10 percent, and they were to do it through something other than the well-worn drill and kill.
"I told the math department to do anything they could do to motivate students," Asbell said.
In other words, make it fun.
The department purchased smart boards and computerized overhead projectors called Elmo to improve student interactivity in the classroom. One teacher uses the equipment to have her students compete in math Jeopardy.
They got students to become peer tutors for classmates who are further behind. They added computer labs in some classrooms to give children more time for individualized skill building.
Andrea Hunt, a third-year teacher, sparked enthusiasm among kids like Kaitlyn by launching a school math club. Meeting every Tuesday after school for two hours, the club spends much of its time online practicing math skills.
Most of the activities have the kids racing to complete math problems in order to finish a puzzle. There are matching games, memory games and games that force students to work out word problems.
"It's not fun to do stuff just to do it," said sixth-grader Vaibhav Gandhi. "Would you rather do your math homework, or do your math homework on the computer playing games? It's something you want to do."
The students in the math club enjoyed their work so much, in fact, that they turned their lessons into a fourth place finish in the state Math Mania 2009 competition. They went up against 1,020 schools from 57 districts.
Their strong finish got them so excited that the students now are preparing to compete in an international online math contest next week.
Hunt said she's already seen improvement in her students' performance, both in their test scores and their classroom attitude.
Kaitlyn, for instance, said she struggled to understand decimals and fractions. With the math club and Hunt's help, she said she's getting A's.
She's not alone.
Seventh-grader Kerie Foster said she has raised her math grade from C to A, and she no longer considers math her least favorite subject.
Rose Cifaldo, also a seventh-grader, said the challenge of learning math skills that haven't even come up in class made her more certain of her abilities.
"I had an F in math, and then I joined the math club. I'm almost at a B now," Rose said. "Math club helped me a lot."
Some feel so confident that they're tutoring others in the school. Asbell said many students often will take instructions better from their peers than from teachers.
Seventh-grader Shee Stevens said he helped a student with learning disabilities to subtract two-digit numbers.
"I helped her through it and she learned it that day," he said. "It made me feel great."
Improving math abilities is critical, because math is everywhere in society, the students argued.
Mindful of that, Bayonet Point Middle leaders have been meeting regularly with educators from its feeder pattern to discuss how the math curriculum can be better streamlined from grade to grade. Asbell said he's also trying to get more money for technology, so more teachers have access to modern computers that run the most up-to-date software.
Meantime, the math club students continue to encourage their friends to join in their love of math.
"Not a lot of people are that great at math," seventh-grader Brittney Edwards said. "I am trying to tell them about it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.