BILLINGS — Woodrow Pretty On Top is in the zone.
“How many are on top?” asks Rhett Bowers, a paraprofessional at Crow Agency Elementary School, showing the third-grader a flashcard with two rows of dots.
“Eight,” says Pretty On Top, a fourth-grader.
There are also eight dots on the bottom, which he adds up to sixteen. Working through a series of progressively more difficult flashcards, from dots to numerals, Pretty On Top is learning to conceptualize larger numbers as a combination of smaller numbers. He’s building a bridge from simply seeing a number to visualizing a count in his head. He answers rapid-fire questions, pausing occasionally to think.
The one-on-one session is the product of a Sheridan, Wyoming-based teacher training program that’s been nationally recognized for helping improve math scores in some schools. Unfortunately, the math isn’t adding up for the program’s finances.
The First People’s Center for Education, a nonprofit that offers math training to schools working with Native American students, plans to close at the end of the school year after several years of funding struggles.
Much of the group’s work focuses on training educators to identify and support students who have fallen behind or started behind their peers academically in early grades.
“If they are not advancing at the rate of their peers by third or fourth grade, it’s not likely that they ever will,” said Charitina Fritzler, the center’s director.
The group has worked with schools in Montana, including St. Labre, Lame Deer, Lodge Grass and Wyola schools; as well as Wyoming; Alaska; and Washington, tailoring their approach.
“We know that every community is different,” Crow Agency principal Jason Cummins said. “There’s other people doing it, but they have a blanket approach.
“It’s going to take them a while to catch up to what the center was doing.”
Cummins began working with the center when he was at Wyola School, and brought the idea with him to Crow Agency when he started as principal in 2013.
“We have to gain their trust,” Fritzler said. “Indian schools are so used to having a peddler, someone who’s selling a magic trick.”
It seems like it might require a magic trick to turn some schools around. Statewide test scores at Crow Agency are consistently lower than district or state averages, even among Native American students. Montana has long-established achievement gaps between white and Native American students. Those gaps are steeper at reservation schools.
Cummins believes in “Strength in Number,” the math program the center uses, but that wasn’t what sold him on the partnership. It was how the center respects Native American values.
“I think it’s a school’s moral responsibility to respect and incorporate the values of a community,” he said. “Learning happens through relationships. That’s what the center provides to schools.”
“The most important thing when you go into our schools is to listen,” Fritzler said.
The center also requires teachers to listen. Typically, teacher training is tiered, which helps foster a culture of in-house leadership. In August, before school started, training took three or four days a week. Going into the 2014-15 school year, Crow Agency focused on training for one-on-one interventions, like the drills Pretty On Top worked on.
Teachers identify students who need extra help. Students are then videotaped during an initial assessment to identify specific weaknesses and strengths. Educators tailor a plan for each student.
“The program is intense,” said third-grade teacher Gabby Molina. “It’s not like a math book. It’s a way of looking at what kids are thinking.”
The center, which started operating in 1999, was initially funded through private grants and state and federal funding. When earmarks were banned by the U.S. House in 2009 and the recession dried up private money, schools using the center picked up the tab, and the center offered scholarships when it could.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Fritzler said.
Tax documents show that both school contributions and private grants and donations have been declining; 2012 was a particularly rough year. The center has concerns about schools “piecemealing out” the program to save money instead of adopting the whole system, reducing its effectiveness.
Fritzler said the group has searched for more funding through grants and private organizations, but has come up short. It considered hiring someone for a full-time fundraising position, but decided the costs may not be sustainable.
“The last three years have been very difficult,” she said. “It was hard to (close), but we were headed that direction.”
A Wyoming budget proposal to provide nearly $300,000 in funding never made it out of committee.
Schools the center works with were notified of the decision near the beginning of the school year, but Fritzler said the group held off on a wider public announcement until a recent public meeting in Sheridan. The Sheridan Press initially reported that the center planned to close.
Fritzler said that the center is trying to set up schools with other resources to continue developing the Strength in Number method.
Molina, who student-taught at Crow Agency and has been a teacher there for five years, hadn’t heard about the center’s plans to shut down.
“That’s such a bummer. Oh, that’s sad,” she said. “I try to offer advice to any fellow teachers, but . they need something. That will be a void.”
Working one-on-one with a teacher is key for helping struggling students catch up with their classmates. But the center’s methods still inform class-wide lessons at Crow Agency.
Molina worked with her class on relating multiplication to division, breaking down numbers like 24 into three rows of eight. The approach helps students grasp that the same concepts used to know that three times eight is 24 also apply to understanding that 24 divided by eight is three.
The math theory has some striking similarities with Common Core, but has been around much longer, and emphasizes close, intensive work with students.
First-grade teacher Robin Zerbe works with four students during lunch. She was trained in one-on-one intervention two years ago and is trying to apply those methods to small group and classroom work more this year.
She sits inside a curved table, ringed by four first-graders. The surface is a kaleidoscope of applesauce, string cheese, bananas, granola bars, sandwiches and craft sticks.
The sticks are a mix of loose singles and bundles of 10. Shawn Wilson grips two bundles.
“Is this 20?” he asks.
“You tell me, honey,” Zerbe said.
“Yes, it is,” Wilson decides.
“Often these children will just try to count with their eyes,” Zerbe said. “It’s conceptual. You really need the hands on to see that.”
She asked students to pull out 26 sticks — two bundles and six singles. Next, she has them pull out pieces of papers with numerals. Some students pull out a 20 and a six, while others pull out a two and a six.
Carol Birdinground has pulled out a two and a six.
“Is this 20?” Zerbe asks, pointing to the two card. “Go ahead and take it apart and count (the bundles).”
“No,” Birdinground replies, consulting two bundles of sticks. She replaces the two with a 20.
Zerbe then assigns students their own number. Wilson draws 95. He sighs.
“I think I’m gonna need more bundles,” he said.
It seems so simple, two plus two. But whether students like Pretty On Top — “Shorty,” as his classmates call him — can identify four as the answer is only part of the equation. He’s got one leg looped around a bar connecting his black stool to the table, a classic lunchroom configuration. It’s how he knows that the answer is four that will set the foundation for future academic success.
He can visualize what each two means; a count of two, not just a loopy-looking letter. He can do that for each number and carry those lessons over to division, multiplication, algebra and more advanced math. Without that skill — especially in his current grade — he’s unlikely to ever catch up.
Pretty On Top sports black braided hair, blue jeans and a dark blue North Face jacket. The lunchroom he sits in has Crow Nation and U.S. Flags. Photos of tribal leaders watch over him as he works.
He’s nailed most of the drills with Bowers, polishing off the last of the small, numerical flashcards. Other students are filing in the room for lunch.
Cummins said that the school will do their best to continue teaching educators about the center’s training.
“(But) beyond the end of this year, I don’t know what the future holds,” he said.
Fritzler is unflinching in her assessment of the struggles facing schools on reservations. She’s also proud of the work the center has done.
“I don’t believe what we’ve been doing was wasted time,” she said. “But it’s not enough.”
The Crow word for school is “Amaáchimmuua.” Best translated, it means “a place to count.”
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