The pressure was on. The third-grade Math Night competition had worked its way down from 15 students to two semifinalists after 10 minutes of problem-solving and answering math facts.
Silence filled the auditorium, and Principal Natasha Jenkins asked a word problem: “Mia watches too much television. One day she watched from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. How many hours of television did she watch that day?”
The first contestant said five hours. Now all eyes were on student Dermot Eban-Ebai.
"Seven," Dermot said, followed by cheers from the audience.
The competition Nov. 15 was a first for Springhill Lake Elementary School in Greenbelt.
"The idea came from the spelling bee we held last year," said special education paraprofessional Maria King, the coordinator of the evening event. "Our PTA president [A. Marie Kelly] suggested doing a Math Night in the same style."
King said the goal of the competition was to improve students' knowledge of math facts and boost self-esteem.
Nationally, the U.S. ranks behind 31 other countries in math proficiency, according to a recent Harvard study.
Prince George's County lags behind the state in math scores, with 29 percent of students scoring below "proficient," compared to the state average of 18 percent, according to the 2012 Maryland Report Card issued by the Maryland Department of Education. Springhill Lake’s third-grade class scored 36.5 percent below proficient in math, and schoolwide, about 40 percent of students in grades three through five scored below proficiency in math, according to the state report card.
King said she hopes Springhill Lake's Math Night will help create an environment conducive to improving the school's math scores.
Competitors were asked questions displayed on a screen and read by Jenkins. If the student could not answer the question, they were out, and the same question was asked of the next student. If there were only two remaining, and neither student could answer the question correctly, both moved on to the next question.
Each teacher selected one student from their class to compete, although not all competitors showed up for the event.
Amner Murillo-Chicas was the kindergarten winner, although he had no competition.
Other winners were: Braylon Martin (first grade), Kevin Martinez (second grade), Nuzhat Zaheen (fourth grade) and Anthony Ramirez (fifth grade).
Each winner received a medal with their grade and first-place finish engraved on it.
Afterward, wearing his medal, third-grade winner Dermot said he had practiced answering math questions in preparation for the event.
"We're very proud of him," said his mother, Elizabeth Eban-Ebai.
King said that the competition went "really well" for the first of what will hopefully become an annual event.
"We'll have more of the bugs worked out for next year," she said.
The “bugs” King referred to included a multiple choice question with no correct answer and running out of first-grade questions before a winner was determined.
Initially, judges declared the first-grade match a tie, but after some discussion, it was decided to move the two remaining first-graders into the second-grade competition, where Braylon was eventually declared the first-grade winner.