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After 34 Years, Teacher Earns a Heartfelt 'Goodbye, Mr. Fitz'

A champion of advanced math and science courses at North Hollywood's Walter Reed Middle School is retiring.

June 21, 2003|Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writer

In a stifling second-floor classroom at North Hollywood's Walter Reed Middle School, William Fitz-Gibbon tries to expound on the laws of thermodynamics, but he keeps getting interrupted with questions from his eighth-grade physics students, highly gifted but wrestling with the concepts of the day's lesson.

Unfazed by their queries, Fitz, as he is known, patiently answers in simple words before moving on with the lesson.

Taking complex mathematical and scientific concepts and breaking them down into terms that young minds can understand has been the hallmark of Fitz's 34-year teaching career that will be celebrated at a retirement party on Sunday.

Although his last day of teaching is June 30, Fitz doesn't show signs of slowing down as he expertly works physics problems on the blackboard, calls on students and grades homework. Yet, there are reminders that things are coming to a close: Retirement party fliers are taped to a bulletin board and a student pops into the classroom to snap his photo for posterity.

Though teachers retire every year, Fitz's contributions deserve special recognition, said Nora Feldman, vice president of the school's Parent-Teacher-Student Assn.

"He has made extraordinary efforts on behalf of the kids in terms of bringing them this educational experience," she said. "He has pushed them beyond their own perceived limits and taken them where they might not ever have dreamed to go."

Tall, lanky and intense, Fitz, 68, is the embodiment of the bespectacled and somewhat absent-minded professor. He seems to thrive in the controlled chaos of his classroom, with a cluttered desk and walls covered with plaques won at local, regional, state and national math and science competitions.

A passionate advocate for advanced math and science classes in middle school, Fitz co-founded Reed's Individualized Honors Program in 1971 to extend highly gifted programs that previously ended after the fifth grade.

The honors program allows qualified sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to take high school-level algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, physics, biology and chemistry while working at their own pace, Fitz said.

The veteran teacher developed the program to help prepare students for college-level math and science courses. Fitz said he struggled as an undergraduate at MIT in part because his high school didn't offer higher-level math and science classes.

"I want students to be well-rounded," Fitz said, sitting at his desk surrounded by students in his independent math class. "By excelling in math and science now, these kids can take more of a breadth of courses in college."

Although teaching math and science is his calling, Fitz said he is not trying to turn out future mathematicians or scientists, but rather young people who can apply the principles of scientific thinking to help find answers to societal problems.

"I feel that having a deep knowledge of science helps in understanding the motivations of people and gives methodologies to solve problems," he said. "If you get through the basic science classes, you will have a great background, even if you become a historian or a lawyer."

Fitz's educational philosophy appears to have its merits: A former student who holds an English degree from Yale will take over Fitz's highly gifted math and science classes in the fall.

Students give Fitz high marks for being available after school and for weekend tutoring at his Brentwood home.

Reed is a year-round school, and students have 10 weeks off during the winter -- plenty of time to forget the physics lessons they learn in preparation for standardized testing in the spring.

"Fitz knew we would forget a lot of physics, so he took six days out of winter break to come here and teach us," said eighth-grader Erich Sorger.

As his days in the classroom come to a close, Fitz said his thoughts are turning to spending more time with his wife, Debbie, and his two adult children, Sorel, a microbiologist at UCLA, and Keir, who works for a computer company in England.

There'll be more time for the theater and tennis, he said, as well as to continue to advocate for higher math and science programs, train teachers of highly gifted children and write scholarly articles.

"There are always transitions with kids leaving and another group coming in," Fitz said, referring to his retirement. "They'll be here next year, but I won't."

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