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CONVERSATION / WITH TEACHER JOE BARON : 'Learning That Work Ethic Is Critical'

February 03, 1995

In the 1994 national Westinghouse Science Talent search, California had three finalists, all from a single school: La Jolla High School in San Diego County. On a recent early morning, as the school bustled with meetings for more science competitions, JILL STEWART talked with the La Jolla High science chairman JOE BARON about why his students have done so well.

Question: How is La Jolla High School different from most California schools?

Answer: Jay Tarvin, the principal, will tell you we have one of the lowest dropout rates. There's no graffiti, no security. Kids work on campus, for wages, to "buy" their lockers. It's the whole environment, not just science. Jay has had teachers tell him, "I can't take this. It's too hard. I'm going back to an easier school."

Q: People might argue that La Jolla is a wealthy area, with science resources like the Scripps facilities and the Salk Institute, so it's bound to succeed. Can such success be replicated in an average school?

A: This isn't about money. La Jolla High spends just $3,700 per student (which includes funds from the state and the school's nonprofit fund-raising efforts)--$2,000 less than many low-ranked schools. The key factors are students who have the support of parents to excel--not to keep up, but to excel--and a staff that is excited and wants to share that with students.

I worked hard to get three great teachers--Lee Decker, Greg Volger and Martin Teachworth, from Gompers Secondary School in La Jolla. It's made a dramatic difference. We have eight teachers and four volunteers coaching events for Science Olympiad. Most good schools have one or two teachers involved.

Q: What kind of help do volunteers provide?

A: One example: David Groce, a retired physicist, basically is going to remodel his garage so he has a flat surface long enough for him and the kids to be able to practice on Scrambler. The object of the Scrambler competition (which is part of the Science Olympiad) is to create a device that will carry an egg at high speed to a finish line and stop as close as possible to that line without breaking the egg. Right now, they're running prototypes in the cafeteria on Saturdays.

Q: Most cities have highly skilled professionals who could share their knowledge with students but don't. How do you connect these people with schools?

A: The trick is to invite them in. David Groce was our key because he went out and got Pam Bruder, our rocks and fossils coach, and now he's got Pam's husband, Stuart, working with Scrambler. He got John Bartell, a materials engineer. The thing is, once these adults get steered our way, they get so excited working with the kids that we've got them hooked.

Q: How are the more average kids benefiting?

A: I, too, am a plodder who succeeded by putting in the time. A science coach like Martin Teachworth will take a kid who's willing to work and make him really good. One kid got into building bridges, and he got so good that he was first in the nation every time he competed. That average kid is now a structural engineer.

Q: Recently, a California school considered not assigning homework, arguing that kids don't need the pressure. How do you view that attitude?

A: In my chemistry class, there is homework every single day, period. Kids come in with very poor organizational skills, no time management skills, a lot of avoidance and procrastination. At year's end, they've accomplished something of true value to them. When their work notebook is finally 6 inches high, they are genuinely proud. Learning that work ethic is critical.

Q: How did the school help the Westinghouse finalists?

A: The level the Westinghouse kids are working at is beyond anything we can handle. I can't even read their projects. I try to ask them tough questions, and they just laugh at me. But one kid mentioned recently that it's the atmosphere. Our teams go to all the major science competitions every year and do very well.

Q: How do low-income Latino children, who make up nearly 30% of your school, fit into the picture?

A: My Hispanic kids are the ones who want to stay after school every day to work. You can see the improvement. A lot of these kids go to college and are often the first in their families to do so.

Q: What persuades a kid to give up Saturdays for math and science? Most kids would say, "How uncool."

A: The coaches create the atmosphere. The kids know that the other kids will be there. It's almost a social group, something that can't be missed.

Q: Do teachers and assistants get paid for the extra hours?

A: I was able to get the teachers an extra $125 per teacher per year. Obviously, they don't do it for the money.


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