Arizona School Using Culture and Innovative Math Project to Boost Student Success

Last Updated: October 29, 2012

This article appeared in the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

Talk to Mark Sorensen, principal of STAR School in northern Arizona, and he will make sure you understand that the school — its curriculum and relationships — are rooted in the Native cultures of the Navajo students who comprise most of the school's student body.

"We want the school to reflect the core values that come from deep Navajo tradition: respect, responsibility, relationship, and reason," says Sorensen.

In fact, the school's name reflects these values. STAR is an acronym for Service To All Relations.

The school, located on the edge of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, is also completely off the grid. "There are no power lines coming through. The school is wind and solar powered. And that also fits with the school's desire to honor the four Navajo elements: air, fire, earth, and water," Sorensen explains, adding that the school's off-grid status does not mean it lacks technology.

STAR's commitment to honoring its students, their community, culture, and place has garnered national attention, including recent recognition as one of Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine's "Coolest Schools in America."

When the school earned a highly-rated ranking in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program, it was for its proposal to work with other Native American and Native Hawaiian schools to implement similar approaches, particularly in math education for youth children.

Ultimately, STAR did not win federal i3 funding, but its proposal captured the attention of the Rural Trust, which brokered partial funding for the program, in part because of its value as an innovation useful to other rural schools.

STAR's 3 to 3rd Math Project

To understand how STAR got to its highly successful program to improve overall achievement, you have to go back in time a bit.

As in many rural communities, especially those where cultural traditions and sustainable economies have been disrupted, children were arriving at kindergarten without all the skills they needed.

"Our kids were coming to kindergarten a year and a half behind in math and reading," says Sorensen. That led the school to the idea of starting a pre-kindergarten program.

"We were looking around for a pre-K approach. Montessori became an attractive option because it emphasizes student choice. Children are given a lot more choice in Navajo homes than in dominant culture households," Sorensen explains. "There's not an attitude that children should be quiet and wait for adults. Also, kids have a lot of responsibility at home, including caring for younger siblings. So there's an expectation of choice and responsibility."

He continues, "People think of Montessori as a option for affluent parents, but it's a good fit for us, too. It's an approach in which teachers are facilitators of student learning through a discovery process. And, the quality of the materials is really good."

While the school was exploring the kind of pre-K program it wanted to establish, staff found research indicating that early math achievement was more predictive of future school success than reading achievement. That led to a decision to emphasize math in the emerging pre-K program for three and four year olds.

"The kids have gaps in math concepts," says Sorensen. "And a lot of teachers don't feel confident in their own understanding of math concepts. But because the Montessori materials are so good and teachers work as facilitators, children interact with the materials and discover the concepts. It's amazing to see a young child hold up a sphere and say, 'this is a geometric solid.' "

These kinds of hands-on experiences are especially important for students like those who attend STAR. "It's not that kids in poverty have fewer innate skills, it's that they don't have the language to identify the concepts," says Sorensen. "This approach is tactile. By interacting with the materials the kids gain a kinesthetic understanding and appropriate math language that is connected to that understanding. It's why they do so much better. And the pre-K teachers also like it and become much more confident. We are seeing two years of growth for every year in the program. It's addressing the deficits."

Expanding: Up and Out

Leaders at STAR recognized that the success its youngest three- and four-year-old students were experiencing should be shared. That led to the idea to extend the program into higher grade levels and the name "3 to 3rd Math Project." It also drove STAR to explore how it could share its successes with other schools. 

Sorensen explains, "Students in Native American schools on reservations are performing less well than any other subgroup on NCLB tests. That means students with high Native American enrollment tend to focus on reading. And because of the punishing aspects of NCLB, these schools are forced into scripted reading programs focused on test results. So the idea of choosing math as an effective way of improving achievement overall became, almost by neglect, a way to get a foot in the door to work with other schools."

At the same time Sorensen says it became obvious that having a dynamic pre-K program was not sufficient and that changes needed to be implemented through the third grade. So the school used the same thinking and values it had used in the rest of its program to develop deeply culturally rooted ways to change its math instruction.

"We've developed an approach that uses cultural adaptation and Navajo language, a focus on place, and Montessori approaches and materials," explains Sorensen. 

Initial Hitches

Despite STAR's success with its math program in pre-K and kindergarten, there were snags extending it to 2nd and 3rd grades and to other schools. "Arizona starts standardized testing in 2nd grade, so it's really difficult for teachers in those grades, even teachers whose philosophy matches the overall goals of the program, to give up the standardized curriculum. It's a cultural shift," says Sorensen.

It can be an even bigger leap for schools that have not had prior success and are facing NCLB sanctions.

But STAR had closely tracked student outcomes in pre-K through 1st grade and was able to demonstrate the approach's impact. And support from the Rural Trust grant enabled the school to provide teachers with professional development in Montessori approaches through online classes and to put the Montessori materials in their classrooms.

"The testing mentality has been so powerful for the last twenty years," says Sorensen. "But it's a losing proposition for kids from communities like ours to be judged just by the criteria of the tests."

The Montessori-based approach that STAR has developed is breaking the testing stranglehold, both by broadening the opportunities for students to learn and demonstrate success and by improving their performance on the tests themselves.

There have been additional challenges in extending the program to other schools. The Rural Trust grant has been important but not nearly so large as the federal i3 grant would have been. And several schools in Hawaii and Arizona that were planning to participate have lost funding for their pre-school programs, casualties of state funding decisions. That means STAR has had to re-direct some of its efforts.


The 3 to 3rd Math Project is now fully underway and succeeding at STAR. And while STAR negotiates new partnerships to extend the program to other schools, it is developing a series of twelve DVDs, each one on a specific aspect of the program. "We've discovered that if you get access to high quality early childhood and good training for teachers you can have a really big and long-lasting impact," says Sorensen. "We hope other rural schools will be able to use the DVDs and get access to Montessori materials to implement the program."

The first three DVDs are available on STAR's website. Other schools can use them to learn about the program and explore its possibilities for their own students.

"It's so clear that students in communities like ours don't have opportunities to interact with math materials in their homes," says Sorensen. "There are not libraries here. If the students are not exposed at school, they won't get it."

Sorensen recognizes that the Montessori materials are expensive and that teachers need training to shift their role from that of direct instructors to learning facilitators. He knows that students in high-poverty communities need more access to good materials but actually have less access to school resources than their more affluent peers. That's part of the work STAR wants to do to help other schools implement the program. "There needs to be more investment in schools. We would like to get this out to a larger audience, but that will take more support."

He also knows that if schools in high-poverty communities had more freedom and flexibility, many could use the resources available to them in more productive ways. "You have to have some resources and vision, and schools may need some guidance, but if they have support instead of someone breathing down their neck, great things can happen," Sorensen says.

"Parents are amazed at how much their kids can learn in school," he adds. "We are hoping to show that education in schools like ours can be done well. It can be really great. And you don't have to be rich to do it. It's not rocket science. You don't have to have that much technology. We just put the pieces together in a unique way."

Learn more about STAR School, its award-winning media and energy programs, its Navajo Language and American Sign Language programs, and other innovations at its website at

Read more from the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.