School retools math education with support from Lab experts

Math and Science Academy outreach program wraps a successful year at Blanco Elementary School

By Tricia Ware | June 14, 2023

Blanco Elementary
Randy Merker (left) and Zachary Leonard (right) of the Lab's Math and Science Academy chat with Blanco Elementary School counselor Mary Head-Powell during a math night for students and their families. Over the course of the year, Merker and Leonard immersed themselves in the educational culture at the school, located in Bloomfield, New Mexico.

Students and teachers at Blanco Elementary School in Bloomfield, NM are wrapping up the school year with newfound confidence and proficiency in mathematics, thanks to the ongoing work with Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Math and Science Academy and its Math Teacher Leader Network.

The academy increases elementary and middle school students’ math proficiency by offering teachers innovative techniques along with support in their consistent implementation. To date, it has graduated more than 600 teachers and principals across northern New Mexico.

Together, Blanco Elementary teachers, principal Lynda Spencer and MSA education specialists Randy Merker and Zachary Leonard identified key challenges in mathematics learning and proposed solving them with multiple approaches, including:

  • Number Talks, a mental math strategy in which a teacher presents a math problem and invites students to find different ways to solve it and share their strategies with the class;
  • Choral counting, where the teacher leads students in counting aloud by a given number raising awareness of sequence, patterns and number relationships;
  • Counting collections, in which students count sets of objects such as pompoms or pieces of macaroni, increasing their number fluency;
  • and the new Number Sense Lab, a hub of these activities all designed to increase students’ “number sense” or awareness of numbers and how they work.

“The work we have been doing with the Math Teacher Leader Network has really helped me learn strategies for engaging my students with the math concepts in a hands-on way,” says Anna Andersen, fifth grade teacher. “It’s so fun and rewarding to see our students really engaged while learning math.”

Education professionals frequently attend professional development workshops in math or other subjects, but can’t find time to implement their knowledge once they return to the classroom. Merker and Leonard developed one solution to this common pitfall via math study cycles: monthly sessions with teachers working together to plan a lesson, watch each other teach the lesson, provide feedback regarding the students’ reaction to the lesson, and making adjustments to the lesson to maximize student engagement and learning. As a result of this process, the teachers and principal were able to gradually build a new math teaching and learning culture at their school–one focusing on continuous improvement.

“I’m new to teaching and working on my degree and licensure now,” says Josh Notah, fifth grade teacher. “Through the Math Teacher Leader Network, I am able to see how best practices can be implemented in my own classroom. I have also had the opportunity to realize my potential for being a leader at my school. While I never thought math was my strength, I am beginning to realize I have the ability to be an effective math teacher.”

Data released in 2022 to the New Mexico Legislative Education Committee revealed that only 25 percent of the state’s students are proficient in math. The study also revealed that students’ math proficiency begins to drop at the sixth-grade level and often decreases from there. Projects conducted through the Math and Science Academy strive to prevent that.

“Many schools across New Mexico share common challenges,” says Merker, “but they also face challenges that are unique to their communities. We always begin a project by listening to principals and teachers. They know what they need to do. What can be less obvious is how to go about it, and that’s where we come in. It has been our privilege to collaborate with the teaching and leadership talent at Blanco Elementary. They are quickly becoming a model for how to improve mathematics teaching and learning.”

Blanco Elementary is located in Bloomfield, NM, population 7,371. The school serves 173 students in grades 1-6. Enrollment is 70 percent minority and 63 percent economically disadvantaged.

The Math and Science Academy and Math Teacher Leader Network are part of the Lab’s Community Partnerships Office, which supports STEM education, nonprofit giving and economic development in the seven-county region surrounding the Laboratory. Those counties are: Los Alamos, Mora, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Miguel, Santa Fe and Taos. The partnership with Blanco Elementary School, while outside of these counties, came about as a result of a special math coaching development project with the New Mexico Public Education Department which preceded the Math Teacher Leader Network.