Sometimes, Hannah Pfoutz's students surprise her.

That was the case last week, when they surreptitiously plotted a celebration for her birthday. One student feigned a problem to distract Pfoutz, and the others gathered across the hall. In concert with the other fifth-grade teacher, Larissa Beckstead, all the fifth-grade students sacrificed their recess and gathered for lunch and cake in Beckstead's room.

"They're usually willing to miss recess for junk food," Pfoutz laughed.

That laughter is leavened with hard work for Pfoutz, 27, a first-year teacher at Arlington's Drew Model Elementary School. Realizing that several of her students were struggling in math, she recently laid plans for a morning math club.

After Thanksgiving break, she'll open her classroom at 8:15 -- 45 minutes early -- twice a week to help students performing below grade level. The club meetings will focus on drills to help students master basic concepts such as multiplication tables. She hopes that the early time will help create a positive environment for learning.

"It's fun to come in and have breakfast with your teacher, even if you're doing long division," she said.

The emphasis on math will be continued after school as well. Nine of Pfoutz's students have been tapped for the SOL Booster Club, which is designed to prepare students for the state Standards of Learning exams. That booster club, which will include some of the morning math club members, will meet once a week.

"I'm hoping that [the booster club], in addition to my morning club, will help get these kids up to grade level," she said.

To prepare for such tasks, Pfoutz leans on her mentor and friend, Stephanie Ellison. Ellison is a former fourth-grade teacher at Drew and this year is the school's Title 1 teacher, providing reading and math help to students who need it. Ellison also mentors three other Drew teachers.

Although Ellison is on maternity leave, she continues to work with Pfoutz, sharing advice and teaching tips. Pfoutz benefits from the fact that Ellison also works with some of her students as the Title 1 teacher.

"We meet as two teachers who teach the same kids who are trying to find solutions to the same problems," Pfoutz said.

The mentoring program isn't formal. The teachers chat before and after school, and the mentoring is part of a long-running conversation about teaching and how to maximize strategies to help students learn efficiently. They also help each other through trying times. Because Ellison taught some of Pfoutz's students last year in fourth grade, she can offer perspective on different students.

Ellison, who was also a mentor at a school in Moses Lake, Wash., emphasized that her role is not a supervisory one. She is a resource. She can offer tips on how to schedule a field trip, where to order supplies and how to address behavior issues.

"I try not to stick myself into it too much," Ellison said.

When Pfoutz gets frustrated, she turns to Ellison to be a cheerleader.

"I really rely on Stephanie," she said, "sometimes just for pep talks."

Drew Model teacher Hannah Pfoutz helps Fantgsia Rucker, 10, with her costume for the class "Egypt parade." Hannah Pfoutz accompanies fifth-graders on an "Egypt parade" at Drew Model Elementary School. To help some students, she is organizing a math club.