University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire


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Math Professor Billie Sparks Builds
National Reputation In Math Education

 MAILED:  March 14, 2003

EAU CLAIRE — The year was 1962. Billie Sparks, now a math professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was in the 10th grade and on his way home to Arkansas after a summer math enrichment program at the University of Oklahoma. An old black man leaned over the bus seat, looked him in the eye and gave him some unforgettable advice. "Whatever you do, don't be a nothing," the old man said.

Sparks went on to become a junior high and high school teacher before earning a doctorate and master's degree in mathematics from George Peabody College for Teachers (now a division of Vanderbilt University) in Nashville. But he has never forgotten the old man's directive.

"I guess you could say he was my ‘mysterious stranger.' Those words have stayed with me in everything I do," says Sparks, who has been on the UW-Eau Claire faculty for 34 years. "I took it to mean that if I'm going to do something, I'll do my very best."

Doing his best has earned Sparks a nationwide reputation in mathematics education. He gets weekly calls from school officials and teachers seeking advice on math curriculum development, assessment, staff development and other issues related to the teaching of mathematics in the elementary and secondary schools.

"Every time they do that, they're calling on the expertise of UW-Eau Claire. This is how the university builds relationships and how our department has developed its strong reputation in math education," says Sparks, the senior member among the department's six math educators who specialize in the development of the mathematics education courses.

In addition to teaching, he estimates he has given more than 500 speeches, workshops and in-service sessions for math teachers. He's received more than $337,000 in extracurricular grants, aimed at improving the teaching of mathematics and enhancing the leadership skills of teachers in the field.

Math department chair Tom Wineinger says Sparks has a clear vision in mind about how to advance mathematics education, a key component of his success in securing grants.

"He has worked hard at writing and rewriting grants. Successful grant writing is hard work. It's something one learns by trial and error," Wineinger says.

Sparks believes teachers are constantly in need of being updated. "There are always new things that need to be taught, and I've always felt I could do something to fill that need."

Early on Sparks worked nationwide, conducting workshops for teachers in every major city in the country. Over the past 15 years, he has concentrated his efforts in Wisconsin, often serving as a consultant to school districts as they work through the challenges of reforming mathematics in their schools.

"I came to believe that the Lone Ranger approach of riding into town, firing the silver bullet and then leaving was not effective," Sparks said. "What really works is a continuing relationship where you give teachers some ideas to try and then come back to help with the fine-tuning."

Recently Sparks has concentrated his efforts to reform K-12 mathematics in Wisconsin by creating a system by which model teachers are trained who can then teach other teachers. The idea is to develop teacher leaders in each school and provide "just in time" answers as questions arise.

His most recent grants from the U.S. Department of Education pair talented student interns from UW-Eau Claire and lead teachers within the Eau Claire school district each semester. Sparks says the model creates time for the lead teachers to work with their colleagues to discuss concerns and solutions.

"Through this program I have been able to serve as a mentor to the other teachers in my district," said Michelle Parks, from Eau Claire's Northstar Middle School. "In working with Billie he has given me direction for working with adult learners. I am also able to work with K-12 math educators to try to develop a seamless curriculum in our district."

Parks said Northstar has implemented grade-level discussion groups, developed common assessments and planned a day to work with special education and ESL teachers pertaining to math education.

"Collaboration is something teachers don't do often enough. This program has allowed a great deal of collaboration and allowed us to look at the ‘business' of teaching," Parks said. "We are able to focus on how we teach, not just on what we teach."

Parks, who studied under Sparks for both her bachelor's and master's degrees, says his leadership and knowledge continue to lead her educational career. "He's an incredible leader and I owe a lot of who I have become to him."

Sparks also serves as co-project director of WASDI, a statewide project to provide staff development in mathematics, science and technical education. Originally funded with a five-year, $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and designed to take the local project known as the Cray Academy and make it a statewide model, WASDI is going into its ninth year, thanks to additional funding.

There are 10 academies around the state, serving about 3,000 teachers each summer. WASDI has developed staff presenters who are trained in making presentations and in standards-based education.

"These teachers have really done great things, winning all kinds of awards and making a difference in their classrooms every day," Sparks said.

Sparks said WASDI was notified in early March that it will receive a $1.6 million NSF grant over the next four years to help schools around the state develop programs where experienced teachers will work with novice teachers to help them teach math and science better.

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 Judy Berthiaume, Director
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
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(715) 836-4741

Updated: March 20, 2003