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  • Renée C. Byer /

    James Hill, science team coach at Mira Loma High School, and student Saaket Agrawal look at the team's third-place trophy in the 2012 National Science Bowl. The team won first place this week in the 2013 competition.

  • Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Special teachers can, and do, change lives of their students

Published: Friday, May. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 14A
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 8:49 am

What's the secret to making a public school great?

To solve that riddle, researchers churn out reports, policy wonks debate endlessly and taxpayers spend millions upon millions of dollars.

One answer ought to be clear: Individual teachers matter – a lot.

That one teacher for me was Mrs. Richmond. In her English lit class at my public high school in Columbus, Ohio, I discovered my love of writing. She made an adventure out of reading novels like "The Great Gatsby." She wrote a college recommendation for me, and when I couldn't decide where to go, I followed her advice. She helped put me on the path I'm still on all these years later.

If I ever win an award and have to make a speech, she's one of the people I'd thank.

I suspect quite a few students are having a similar awakening at Mira Loma High, one of the top performing schools in the Sacramento region. The most obvious proof is all the prizes they're winning.

Monday, a team coached by science teacher James Hill won the National Science Bowl, only the latest triumph in a remarkable run. His students have made the prestigious nationwide competition 14 times; they also won in 2009 and 2011, finished second in 2008 and 2010 and placed third last year.

A couple of weeks earlier came word that students taught by economics teacher Chad Posner won nine of California's top 10 spots in the National Personal Finance Challenge. The past two years, his students also got high marks on another financial literacy exam sponsored by the U.S. Treasury.

In different ways, both instructors are able to get students really enthusiastic about academics, beyond just getting good grades.

Posner, who spent more than a year as a financial planner, uses real-life examples like shopping for student loans to interest his classes in subjects that would usually bore them. He also coaches the school's mock trial team and is activities director, working with student government leaders, homecoming organizers and others.

Hill stresses hands-on experiments and demonstrations. He's also a great coach who pushes team members to practice for long hours, but still shows he cares for them.

While Hill and Posner get the publicity, that same dedication runs through the teaching staff, says Mira Loma Principal Rich Nichols.

Hill and Posner agree. Teachers, they say, put in extra time with students. Most are available during lunchtime, and most advise one of the school's 40-plus clubs or its academic teams. Many have long tenures; Hill has taught at Mira Loma for 16 years, Posner for eight.

Study after study has shown that well-trained and motivated teachers are essential to high-quality education. The impact of individual teachers can be even more dramatic in classrooms with large numbers of at-risk students.

While there's widespread agreement on that, one big fight is over how best to evaluate teachers to promote the good ones and weed out the poor ones. Another huge battle is how to divide up funding so that disadvantaged students get more help.

As those political wars consume the state Capitol, most teachers and school administrators are far more concerned about what's going on daily at their schools.

Mira Loma does have advantages. It's not quite "Stand and Deliver" – the movie about math teacher Jaime Escalante, whose students beat the odds at a tough school in East L.A.

With its stellar reputation, the Arden Arcade school attracts bright, motivated students from outside its attendance area for its International Baccalaureate program. About half of students are in IB or its precursor in ninth and 10th grades. Mira Loma, however, does have its share of at-risk students and English learners. It is one of four high schools in Sacramento County named a California Distinguished School for narrowing the achievement gap.

Like a lot of schools, Mira Loma has put in highly regarded programs and the framework for student success. It has more resources than many schools. All of that only goes so far. It still comes down to people – individual teachers.

Nichols told me the difference he sees at Mira Loma is that it's a "teacher-driven, teacher-led movement" that quickly instills high expectations in new staffers and students. He has seen that transformation firsthand. He graduated from Mira Loma in 1976, returned as a student teacher in 1985 and was a teacher and coach before becoming principal in 2011.

He says groups from other school districts regularly visit Mira Loma to try to learn its secrets, or to start their own IB programs. When some discover the time and effort that's necessary, they shy away.

"It just confirms," he says, "how much I value the staff here."

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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