BENTON CITY -- Kids here quickly are getting addicted to a computer game -- and their parents and teachers couldn't be happier about it.
A roomful of fourth-graders stared at screens Wednesday, intensely focused on snatching spaceships out of the sky or pressing the right button to make coconuts rain down on a monkey's head.
It didn't look like a math lesson. And that's the point.
Teachers at Kiona-Benton City schools say Math-Whizz, a web-based math program, has achieved more in a few weeks than traditional methods did in years' time.
It's made math fun for kids and allowed teachers to individually address the needs of every student, without having to slow down or leave behind the rest of the class.
The program looks like it would be fun for anyone 14 or younger. Students start out in a virtual bedroom, which they can decorate. They also can get plants or pets, or start fun games from here.
But to do any of that they have to cash in points. And they earn those points by completing math lessons.
And so the kids clicked to start a session specially tailored for each one and draped in colorful graphics.
The spaceships are labeled with four-digit numbers and students need to place them in order into slots at the bottom of the screen.
The monkey gets hammered by coconuts when the student correctly subtracts a given number of nuts from the total on the palm tree.
There also are timed tests, graphics that show how to add large numbers by splitting them up into their decimal components and much more -- all the way up to basic algebra and probabilities.
It turns math into a fun game, even if fractions haven't been your favorite pastime. And that leads to higher motivation and better results, educators say.
"I've been doing better at my homework and better in class," said 9-year-old Eric Campbell. "The times tables -- now when I do them, I really like them. I don't know that I liked them before."
When math is fun, kids spend more time practicing it, even beyond the required homework. Eric said he often spends "a couple of hours" logged on to Math-Whizz at home. For fun.
But it wouldn't be fun if the lessons were too hard to solve. The program greatly helps the teachers in making sure each student goes through lessons at just the right level.
"At the beginning you have to take this test," Eric said. "It took me two days."
The extensive test figures out each student's strengths and weaknesses. From then on, Math-Whizz makes sure the student gets appropriate doses of exercise in the areas where he or she needs it most.
The program measures kids' math prowess against that expected of a Washington student of equal age per the standardized state tests. If, for example, Eric performed at state average for his age, he would have a "math age" of nine in all of about a dozen different measured categories.
But most kids' strengths vary, as do the skill levels within a class. The program already has helped to level both, as evident in the bar graphs of each kid's progress displayed for teachers.
A red line on the display showed where 9-year-old Garrett Brady started three weeks ago. Many of the red lines were close to age 9. Two of them were quite a bit below.
But the blue bars showing his progress since then are longest for those two formerly weak areas. The ends of those bars -- his current "math age" -- are at or above 9.
He has boosted and evened out his overall math skills. In three weeks.
"Garrett made about six months' growth in general and made two years' in the areas that he was weakest in," said Heather Franklin, Ki-Be's special services director, who oversees the pilot program.
And now that he has caught up, Garrett still will get challenged. He will just move up to solving problems he wouldn't have seen in a traditional fourth-grade classroom that needs to accommodate a lot of kids from different backgrounds.
"It's hard to differentiate instruction when you're in a classroom with 30 kids," Franklin said. "They could be at five or six different skill levels."
In special-needs classes, that difference between students in a class could be even greater. Math-Whizz has helped here, too.
"I have kids that are six or seven years behind," said Rebecca Mendez, a special-ed teacher at Ki-Be Middle School. "It's really nice to have the program so individualized."
Teachers can override the computer and assign lessons they think a kid should focus on. Mendez was helping 12-year-old Miguel Bayrdo chuck coconuts at monkeys. She had felt he needed an extra boost in subtraction.
Miguel has grown in a lot of areas through the program, Mendez said.
"It's hard to find engaging material for him," she said. "We've tried everything. This is another tool and it's really helped."
There could be no doubt Miguel was engaged. When Mendez took too long explaining the benefits of the program, his small hand stole across the keyboard and typed in the solution to the next problem.
A monkey screeched and jumped. The boy grinned shyly.
The program was going to be just for special-needs and bilingual kids -- having pictures to explain math really helps when you don't speak English that well, Franklin said. But as soon as the other teachers heard about it, nearly all wanted in on the pilot project.
The software company lets school districts try out Math-Whizz for 30 days, typically. Franklin talked the salesman into letting her have it for 60. But on May 1, the licenses for Ki-Be's kids will expire, unless the district can find $50 per kid per year in its budget.
It will do everything in its power to do so. The district hasn't met federally mandated standards in math and needed a new tool to improve its scores, Franklin said.
"I was on a mission to find out what's out there," she said. "We've tried others, but this has by far shown the best results."