Something suspicious lurked about the hallways Thursday at Clarke Elementary School on Fort Hood.

Rumors abounded about a missing principal, lists of suspects and motives surfaced and talk of an inside job and coverup circulated across the campus.

The mystery, fastidiously planned out, turned out to be great fun for the third-grade sleuths on the hunt for clues and it also served as a creative, high-energy review for upcoming STAAR testing.

Like many schools, the pre-kindergarten through third-grade campus scheduled a rally to motivate students, but instructional coach Shana Frei, a fan of escape rooms, took the motivation a large step forward.

The latest round of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — STAAR testing — is underway with third- through eighth-graders taking tests through tomorrow.

Clarke’s four third-grade classes took turns Thursday following clues in a scavenger hunt, eventually leading to Principal Laura Dart, tucked away, where excited students “rescued” her from her kidnapping ordeal.

Along the scavenger hunt trail, third-graders read three passages, requiring them to use context clues, to infer and to draw conclusions, leading to another location in the school and another hidden clue.

“It reinforced the skills we have been teaching,” said teacher Patty Robinson, who hurried after one group of her excited students as they pieced together the answer to the troubling mystery.

“I think this activity makes them more comfortable,” she said. “It puts the STAAR in a friendly format so they will be less stressed.”

The scavenger hunt addressed reading skills and an escape room activity Friday provided math preparation. Students in each third-grade class worked together on fractions, rounding, data analysis and other skills to work through clues and save the Avengers and the world.

“I’ve been wanting to do an escape room and this year they let me experiment with it,” said Frei, in her second year as the school’s instructional coach. “It’s tailored to our data, the skills our students need to focus on.”

Making her way down the hallway and observing excited students during the scavenger hunt, she pointed out the third-graders were applying the intended strategies.

“They are looking at the text evidence and they are documenting by showing their work,” she said. “This is culminating everything they have worked on.”

The clues even included a series of fingerprints actually taken from school administrators and eventually leading to the guilty party, assistant principal Bernadette Presta, found suspiciously working in Dart’s office and wearing a wig to impersonate the missing principal.

The student detectives even discovered an email message from Presta to Dart ominously suggesting the principal needed some rest and should consider taking a little time off.

“They are wrapped up in it,” said Frei. “We made sure they knew in advance they would rescue Ms. Dart in the end.”

Teachers noted that the exercise led some students to shine who don’t necessarily speak up in the regular classroom setting. The active mystery brought some new voices to the forefront.

Third-grader Raegan Scott was in the first group of the day that cracked the mystery first.

“We got to go around the school and find clues,” she said. “I think we did so well because we worked together.”

“We were a little worried at first,” Raegan said, “but it was funny at the same time.”

She said the surprise scavenger hunt was a good way to review for the test. “We were a little nervous about the test, but our teachers taught us a lot so we’re ready.”

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