Thursday, March 22 , 2018, 3:01 am | Overcast 60º


Susan Deacon: With Amir Abo-Shaeer, a Chance to Celebrate Greatness

Thanks to a commitment to his calling, community shares in MacArthur Foundation Fellow's success

Sometimes great things happen to great people, or as was the case this week, a great teacher. Amir Abo-Shaeer, a physics and engineering teacher at Dos Pueblos High School, was awarded a coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the $500,000 no-strings-attached grant that comes with it.

Susan Deacon
Susan Deacon

Abo-Shaeer’s award is particularly noteworthy because out of more than 800 recipients in the nearly 30 years MacArthur grants have been handed out, he is the first “teacher” recipient. There have been other educators and academicians, but the distinction is important.

The foundation recognized that teachers like Abo-Shaeer cultivate a love of learning that becomes a lasting part of who we are. I have seen how he became this person, not just for my two sons who took his physics classes, but also for hundreds of their peers. Back then, his notion of a high school engineering academy was just beginning to germinate, but his gift for fostering student success was already evident. In garages across our neighborhoods, physics students toiled late into the night building gravity cars, trebuchets and Rube Goldberg devices. Today. his engineering students have bigger fish to fry — they’re building large-scale robots that execute complex tasks.

Abo-Shaeer knows that to engage students, you have to teach them why content is important, and how it has real-world applications. With his project-based approach, his students come away with an appreciation for the utility of knowledge. You don’t have to look hard to see the results: top regional and national awards for the robots produced by engineering students, consistently top scores by his Advanced Placement physics students, and virtually all of his students going on to college.

An engineer by training, Abo-Shaeer is a problem-solver at heart, and not just of equations or designs. He sees every obstacle as a challenge, and as a school board member I can attest that the educational bureaucracy poses many hurdles for teachers who want to push the system. But today, on the grounds of Dos Pueblos, a $6 million engineering building is rising that will ultimately serve hundreds of students. Together with dedicated parents, Abo-Shaeer has built meaningful relationships with a variety of stakeholders and has adroitly leveraged public-private partnerships to help fund the Elings Center for Engineering Education. Abo-Shaeer not only dreams big, but also has the strength of will to bring his dreams to fruition.

The future impact of Abo-Shaeer’s efforts is easy to visualize. He has pushed early and often to bring girls into his classes, and they now represent half of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy students. The majority of them intend to pursue advanced studies and careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). He has created a diversity plan that focuses on recruiting Latino students into the program.

Our secondary district is about 50 percent Latino, but suffers from a serious achievement gap between the academic success of Latino and Anglo students — something we are working hard to address. To assure that under-represented students are prepared for the rigor of the DPEA, Abo-Shaeer sends his high school students out into the junior highs to mentor and tutor. He is also partnering with UCSB in a STEM tutoring program for younger students.

The Santa Barbara School Districts, both elementary and secondary, are blessed with many great teachers. These professionals rely on each other to prepare our students to take advantage of the most challenging coursework possible. Like Abo-Shaeer, they aren’t doing this for the money.

A recent Vanderbilt University study on merit pay found similar student success rates between high performing teachers who got bonuses, and those who did not. Great teachers do not hold back, regardless of whether there are monetary rewards. Even in the face of budget cuts and the dysfunctional way Sacramento funds education, Amir Abo-Shaeer and his colleagues continue to find ways to ensure their students succeed.

When in January local engineer and philanthropist Virgil Elings donated $1 million toward construction of the new engineering academy, he expressed concern that Abo-Shaeer might leave teaching to go back to more lucrative opportunities in the private sector.

As a school board member, I am also always concerned about losing great teachers. I asked Abo-Shaeer about this, and this was his response:

“This is my passion and too many people have helped support this vision for me to walk away from this. My whole life is based on the premise of doing what makes you happy and everything will work out. With each passing day, my job makes me happier.”

— Susan Christol-Deacon is a Santa Barbara School Districts board trustee.

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