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Three teachers win $175,000 grants to spark science, math

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  • About the grants

    The Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s career awards for K-12 science and math teachers provide $175,000 over five years. That goes toward:

    • $10,000 a year as a stipend for the grant winner.

    • $10,000 a year to buy supplies and equipment for the school.

    • $10,000 a year for professional development and training.

    • $25,000 to be paid at the end of five years if the teacher remains in N.C. public schools.



Innovative math and science lessons have paid off with $175,000 Burroughs Wellcome grants for three area teachers – two in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and one in Gaston County.

All three plan to use their grants to help students in high-poverty schools succeed in subjects that can lead to lucrative careers.

At McClintock Middle School in east Charlotte, David Taylor will build on the award-winning robotics classes he created.

At Allenbrook Elementary in west Charlotte, Chris Fisher, who has third-graders singing math songs, plans to use technology and arts to make math and science fun.

And Michelle Ellis, a math-science teacher at Gastonia’s Grier Middle School, plans to buy tablets to enhance academics at Grier and three other middle schools: Southwest, York Chester and Bessemer City.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund – a private foundation headquartered in Research Triangle Park that promotes biomedical science – has decided it’s essential to start early. The fund launched its “career awards” for North Carolina K-12 science and math teachers in 2009.

“We’re trying to change the culture of teaching in North Carolina,” fund official Carr Thompson said Monday. The grants, paid out over five years, provide money for personal bonuses, school equipment and professional development.

The fund awarded five grants in 2009, five in 2011 and six this year. Until now, the only winner from the area was CMS’ Tamica Stubbs, who taught biology at Waddell High when she won in 2009. After CMS closed Waddell she moved to Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology.

This year the fund got 31 applications and interviewed 10 finalists, along with their principals and superintendents. Mona Hedrick, a teacher at CMS’ Rocky River High, joined Taylor and Fisher among the finalists.

“I was very impressed with the quality of applications that came out of Charlotte,” Thompson said.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison frequently says that today’s teachers must prepare students for careers that don’t yet exist.

“We are so proud of these outstanding teachers,” Morrison said in a news release. “They’re helping our students prepare for 21st century workplaces by teaching them math and science.”

A savvy switch

Taylor, 30, has taught at McClintock for five years. The school works with Christ Lutheran Church to put on family nights that draw hundreds of parents for activities and students for after-school clubs.

Taylor, a science and social studies teacher, volunteered to coach a basketball club. Then-Principal Pamela Espinosa suggested he come up with something that would tie into the push to prepare students for STEM classes – science, technology, engineering and math – when they move up to East Mecklenburg High.

That’s how Taylor’s robotics club was born. His students from McClintock, where 83 percent of students come from low-income homes, have won state robotics contests traditionally dominated by schools with higher-income families and PTAs that can raise big money to support them.

Taylor now teaches robotics classes and writes lessons for the school that incorporate hands-on science and engineering. Paul Williams, who became principal when Espinosa retired, said that when Morrison brought in an expert to talk about irreplaceable teachers, Taylor came to mind.

“It’s just been really neat to see him grow as a teacher,” Williams said.

Music, math and a baby

When Principal Celeste Spears-Ellis was brought in to bump up performance at Allenbrook Elementary, CMS provided bonus money to entice high-performing teachers. Fisher was one of the handful she recruited.

While most elementary schools have one classroom teacher cover all subjects, Spears-Ellis split the upper grades into subjects, more like a middle school. Fisher taught third-grade math.

He brought his guitar and taught his kids math songs. He loves using technology to grab their interest. Test scores rose, at a school where 95 percent of students live in poverty and the school has struggled to get students up to grade level.

Fisher’s grant proposal calls for buying iPads for classrooms, bringing in artists to liven up math and science, and providing substitutes to free up teachers to visit each other’s classrooms and learn from success. He hopes to work with “blended learning,” where teachers combine online lessons and personal teaching to reach students more effectively.

“I’m really excited for the students,” says Fisher, 46. “Too often schools can be a drag.”

But he’ll have to wait until August to launch his grant-sponsored innovations. Fisher and his wife recently had their first child, and he’s staying home with their baby daughter this school year.

Lessons from elementary

Ellis is new to Grier Middle School, but she has been teaching 11 years, most of it in elementary schools. While Allenbrook is breaking out subjects, Ellis thinks middle schools go too far in separating English, math, social studies and science.

Ellis, a 34-year-old math/science teacher, is striving to make sure all teachers work together to reinforce each other.

Her grant plan calls for buying tablets for all four Gaston County middle schools that qualify for federal Title I aid to high-poverty schools. She’s also creating real-life lessons in science and math, such as a project in which students calculate erosion on trails at nearby Crowders Mountain State Park. She hopes to add a school garden where students can grow their own food.

Ellis says she started to apply for a Burroughs Wellcome grant once before and decided it was too much work. She’s glad she tried again. “It is truly a blessing and an honor to receive this award,” she said.

Helms: 704-358-5033
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