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Students at The White Earth Academy of Math and Science do a hands-on experiment in mask making.

Students work on a mask making project at The White Earth Academy of Math and Science.

School is in for the summer

The White Earth Academy of Math and Science helps forge new futures

By Elizabeth Tollefson

June 19, 2007

School's out for the summer, but for students at the Circle of Life School in White Earth, Minnesota, school is still the place to be. For the past nine years, The White Earth Academy of Math and Science has welcomed students seeking advancement in these two crucial areas. This year, from June 4-29, nearly 60 students in grades 5 through 7 are participating, more than double the number from last year.

"This is the first time I have been able to come to summer school," said Shawna Rodenwald, a fifth grader. "I am looking forward to meeting new people and learning all kinds of new things. Every class has something exciting in it, and I am looking forward to every one of them."

Thanks to a partnership with the University of Minnesota, these students will study subjects from orienteering to rocketry and wild rice to archaeology, and along with everything else, they will learn about the Ojibwe culture and their vibrant heritage.

Regional University extension director Deb Zak, who works at the Crookston campus, helps keep people involved in the planning and works with University faculty who are on hand to teach the students. The hands-on approach they provide gives meaning and purpose to the learning.

First day

The classroom grew silent as the first session began and a group of students traced a pattern onto soft leather--a chance to learn an ancestral art. When the small leather pouches were all cut, needles were threaded and the beading began. Rodenwald quietly worked on her pouch and beaded her initials onto the soft tan leather. After an hour, the group moved on to another classroom and another opportunity to learn.

Across the hall, Ron Litzau, a teacher at Pine Point, helped a group of students working on mask making. Molds were made of each of the student's faces, and the molds would later be painted. "The students will paint the masks to reflect how they feel," Litzau said. "The colors and designs will tell a story of about each of the students." It is part of a curriculum on self-esteem called, "Live it."

Downstairs a study of soil erosion was taking place, and Victor Berglund, a ninth grader who has been a part of the White Earth Academy of Math and Science for a number of years, waited patiently for the session to begin.

"I am a mentor now," said Berglund. "I like to go on the trips, and I like the sciences. We learn about animals and plants, but one of my favorite things was learning about GPS [Global Positioning Systems]. If I had to pick the most amazing thing about this school, I would not be able to do it; everything we do has something amazing in it."

Results are obvious

Mitch Vogt, principal at the Circle of Life School, has been involved with the academy since it began. "We originally had a meeting with representatives from the University of Minnesota and the White Earth Indian Reservation. We wanted to help our students improve their scores in math and science," said Vogt.

Does the academy work? Vogt can attest to the higher scores in both subjects. Students participating in the academy have shown a gain of up to two years in math and one and a half years in science--just over the course of the four weeks they attend. "That is a huge jump and one that is much larger than we see over a regular school year," Vogt said.

A 21st Century Community Learning Center grant allows students attending schools in Naytahwaush, Mahnomen, Ponsford, and White Earth communities on the White Earth Reservation to attend the academy.

Grant monies have provided academy students with some unique opportunities. Several years ago, a grant from Toyota allowed them to study different modes of transportation. The students made snowshoes, human-powered three-wheeled vehicles, and even a birch bark canoe constructed just as their ancestors would have with birch bark, venison tallow, pine root, and pitch. That canoe now resides in the White Earth Health Center and the story of how it was made is part of that display.

"Thanks to the University of Minnesota, we are now working to ensure that the entire school year is embedded with math and science," Vogt said. "We have been applying for grant funding to make sure our students can explore and discover the excitement of these subjects, go on to college, and eventually into careers in these fields."

The outlook for the White Earth Academy is bright and there are ambitious goals for the future. Not only would Circle of Life and the University like to see the academy run all summer, they would like to expand it to other areas as well.