Riccardo Magni, a science teacher at Pioneer Valley High School in Santa Maria, was named the Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year on Thursday and will go on to compete at the state level in the fall.
Magni has been with the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District for 11 years and teaches biology, Advanced Placement biology and Advanced Placement environmental sciences.
Most of the district’s students are minorities and qualify for free lunches, and Magni said one of his goals is to help close the achievement gap and make the science classes more accessible to students who traditionally have a hard time with school.
“From the real rhino skull in my classroom, my pet snakes, CSI labs and unique laboratory instrumentation, I want my classroom to be one that kids are talking about at lunch or on Facebook,” he said during Thursday’s County Board of Education meeting, where his award was announced.
Magni is a successful grant writer and has been able to purchase a lot of technology that other schools don’t have access to.
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I tell my students: If you try your hardest every day, you may accomplish a lot,” he said.
His biology students’ grades were above the state average last year, and all 27 of his current AP Biology students are taking the test in May, hoping to receive a passing grade required for college credit and to earn a place on Magni’s hall of fame wall. Many of his former students have gone on to prestigious universities, and a few even went to his alma mater, Haverford College in Pennsylvania, which he said is a huge compliment.
He said there’s a big focus on math and language learning right now and science is often lost, so some students have very little science background by the time they get to high school.
“You have to show them why it’s important and show practical ways you can use the stuff — and make it fun,” Magni said.
Magni started the district’s first AP Biology class in 2007 and started the Summer Science Institute three years ago so students could work on science projects to enter in the county science fair. It was the first time the district had made an entry and the students got third place. Now in its third year, the institute this summer will be sponsored by Hardy Diagnostics of Santa Maria, and eight students will try to crack the county science fair’s top spot.