ANDERSON, Ind. — Growing up near the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Richard Ziuchkovski had every intention of becoming a pilot, but when he took an eye exam, it became immediately apparent he would never be allowed into a cockpit.
Instead, Ziuchkovski entered the University of Kansas to study aerospace engineering and design airplanes.
But he kept thinking back to the difference his calculus and chemistry teachers made for him personally, and he wanted to have that same effect on others. So he switched his studies to math and computer science.
“They made us believe we could do anything a kid from a rich and powerful school could do,” he said. “I basically decided I could be more fulfilled if I did something like what these teachers had done.”
That switch helped Ziuchkovski lead his Anderson High School calculus students to place third in the nation earlier this year at the Clemson Calculus Challenge. His students were the only ones from Indiana to compete.
Ziuchkovski is one of four math teachers in the state nominated as a finalist for the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Four science teachers also are finalists for an award.
Every couple of years one math teacher and one science teacher in each state receives the presidential award, considered by some to be the nation’s highest honor in those disciplines. Ziuchkovski, who has been nominated twice before, hopes the third time is the charm.
Award winners receive a certificate signed by the President of the United States, a trip to Washington D.C. to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities, and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation.
Born 44 years ago in Iowa, the firstborn of Pat Ziuchkovski, an architect, and his wife Chris Ziuchkovski, a stay-at-home mom who went to work in human resources when their three sons were older, Ziuchkovski admits being good but not stellar at math.
Like the students he teaches, Ziuchkovski attended an urban high school, where many students found themselves in trouble at school or with the law.
“I realized the main difference between me and those other people is I’d run into teachers who really took an interest in me,” he said. “They really believed in us when just about everybody else in the city would have thought of us as losers.”
Far from a nerd, Ziuchkovski was captain of the basketball and tennis teams at his high school.
“We had gotten really good at tennis,” he said. “We were the inner-city high school, and nobody took us seriously at things like tennis.”
In 1995, Ziuchkovski was named Colorado’s State Student Teacher of the Year.
He went on to teach four years in well-to-do Woodland Park, Colorado, where he established an honors program.
“I built it from the ground up,” he said.
But teaching upper-middle-class students who had access to tutors and anything else they needed to succeed wasn’t satisfying, Ziuchkovski said.
“In the end, I didn’t feel it was something I was totally fulfilled with,” he said. “You can have 70 to 80 percent of students get tutors, and nobody will ever know you’re a lousy teacher.”
Wanting to see the difference he could make in the classroom and wanting his wife Amy to be a stay-at-home mom to their three children, which they could not afford to do in Colorado, the Ziuchkovskis did some research and pulled up stakes, moving to Muncie in 2000.
“We prayed about it and felt this was the place God wanted us to go,” he said.
Ziuchkovski, who also has taught in Ball State’s School of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, applied for teaching positions at about a dozen schools and received offers from each, he said.
“I really felt like I was interviewing them, not that they were interviewing me,” he said. “What really got me, what really made me want to come here is teachers, students, even administrators, would ask me ‘Why would you want to be here?’ That’s how I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
By 2003, when his predecessor retired, Ziuchkovski took over the calculus and pre-calculus classes.
Ziuchkovski also started his first Calculus 2 class with 15 students, who lacked confidence in their ability to do the work, he said. The state also didn’t really have a curriculum for that level of math for high school students, and up to that time, the class was offered only as independent study, he added.
“Their general consensus was, ‘We are terrible at math because we are from Anderson,'” he said. “I remember spending so much time breaking through, ‘We’re lousy at everything because we’re Anderson High School.'”
At that time, no AHS student had achieved the highest score of 5 on the advanced placement test for calculus. By the end of that first year, six of the 15 students had achieved that score, Ziuchkovski said.
“That made all the difference in the world. I’ve been able to build on that,” he said. “Now we have students come in, and they have an expectation they will do well.”
That Calculus 2 class also has expanded to three full classes, with up to 28 students each. Getting to Calculus 2 requires students to take Algebra 2 by the eighth grade, so being in the class has to be a real goal for students, Ziuchkovski said.
“Back in 2003, there wasn’t a STEM major among them. But now, they all are,” he said. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Though they work hard during their college years, Ziuchkovski said his students come back and tell him they have an advantage in college.
“They’re surprised to find out how easy it is for them and hard for their classmates,” he said.
Some of his students also have moved on to develop their own math equations, formulas and theorems, Ziuchkovski said.
This year, Ziuchkovski will have in his pre-calculus class a special student, his daughter, Abby Ziuchkovski, who until now has been homeschooled.
But Abby Ziuchkovski also introduced her father to a new love: theater performance. When she auditioned for “Miracle on 34th Street,” they needed someone to perform the role of the governor.
“My daughter says, ‘My dad will do it,'” he said, laughing. “I got an email that said, ‘You’ve got a rehearsal tomorrow . As it turned out, I had a really great time. I enjoyed it a lot, so I decided to audition for the next one.”
Now, the entire Ziuchkovski household will be performing in the Muncie Civic Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” starting Friday.
Anderson Community Schools’ interim superintendent Dr. Timothy Smith described Ziuchkovski as a “phenomenal” teacher.
“He just exemplifies what good teaching is about . To hear his story about coming to Anderson to teach just shows his commitment to the community,” he said.
Principal Eric Davis said Ziuchkovski knows how to take the best students and stretch their abilities even further.
“He connects with his students. He really helps his students with math at the highest levels,” he said. “He’s a master teacher, and we’re lucky to have him at Anderson High School.”
Source: The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin, http://bit.ly/2w82Zvt
Information from: The Herald Bulletin, http://www.theheraldbulletin.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by The (Anderson) Herald-Bulletin.