Opinion Columns & Blogs

Master teacher’s ‘Endeavour’ cut

On its face, it seems absurd: A Teacher of the Year having his curriculum cut, bouncing him out of the classroom that he loves and where he’s been effective.

Absurd? Yes, but that’s what has happened to Steve Kliewer, who was named Paso Robles Unified School District Teacher of the Year in 2008.

A geophysicist and engineer before becoming a high school science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teacher some 20 years ago, Kliewer has been a master teacher at Paso Robles Public School’s Endeavour Academy for the past 10 years.

That’s all gone away. The district eliminated the academy.

Kliewer’s last day in the classroom will be Feb. 26. (In fairness to the Board of Trustees, the district was facing a $3.1 million shortfall during the 2009-10 school year due to the state’s budget problems. This was on top of $3.6 million the board had already cut in the spring.)

Although he has all the right to feel bitter, Kliewer is more philosophical than angry about this turn of events.

“The schools and state are reacting to necessity,” he said of the budget cutbacks, “but it’s very shortsighted all the way around. They’re under pressure to do what they can, but they’re not looking over the horizon at what the long-term results will be” of cutting Endeavour classes.

No doubt you’ve heard someone in government or private enterprise lament that China, India and other emerging nations are taking the lead in science and technology. No doubt you’ve also thought, “Gee, that’s a shame.”

Well, it’s more than that; it’s a scandal, plain and simple, that will materially affect our lives and the future of our country’s prosperity and security. Without our students having a bedrock understanding of science, engineering and math, they have no platform on which to make innovative leaps.

As Kliewer noted: “We have become a nation of consumers and money changers rather than innovators and producers as evidenced by the recent financial meltdown. Our vaunted standard of living cannot be supported without real product.”

The Endeavour Academy at Paso High (and there are other Endeavours at Templeton, South County’s Lucia Mar, Santa Maria and Torrance) sought to reverse that direction by engaging freshmen through seniors in math- and science-based technological experiments.

Now, if you’re like me, math and science were courses to be endured, but for Endeavour students, they are collaborative avenues of learning to be savored with “aha” moments of discovery where “knowledge is acquired incidental to the practice of skills.”

In other words, said Kliewer, “The teacher doesn’t have all the answers and is not the ‘gatekeeper.’ ”

That’s a big part of the learning method of Endeavour: It’s not stuck in the paradigm of a teacher lecturing at students and then expecting regurgitation of facts by rote. Indeed, it’s a method of leading a student down a path of inquiry, a path that will lead to a not-necessarily-preconceived solution.

“I call it JIT, which stands for Just In Time,” Kliewer said. “I don’t provide lessons ahead of time, but just in time where they want to know the information, where they can make the most sense of it and are most likely to remember it later.”

What all this leads to — the Endeavour teacher acting as a coach rather than a lecturer — is a skill set heavy on research, analysis, evaluation, problem solving and presentation.

All is not lost for Steve Kliewer when it comes to Endeavour, however.

Edmund Burke, founder and board chairman of the Endeavour Institute, has named Kliewer as a director of the institute in charge of writing grants, mentoring STEM teachers at academies throughout the state, while coordinating workshops and efforts with NASA, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly.

How valuable are Kliewer and Endeavour? Consider what Jim Gustafson has to say:

“My son, Matthew, is in his fourth year at Cal Poly and counts the Endeavor Academy as the most important time spent at Paso High. My point is that the academic preparation was obviously very significant, but also the social interaction with Steve Kliewer and his classmates made this class most significant. This time was so memorable that it is the standard to which he measures all other educational experiences.”

How valuable? How about priceless?

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.