EDUCATION
10/14/2010 02:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Classroom Heroes: NY Math Teacher Howard A. Stern Uses Ingenuity To Overcome Failure Statistics

Howard A. Stern is a public school teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School, the third-largest high school in the New York City and one of the largest in the nation.

Of the 4,561 students at the Bronx school last year, 63 percent of graduates received their diplomas in four years. But Stern, 55, insists that statistics are only meaningful when solving math equations.

"I don't think all teachers realize their students are people, but they are, and I like working with them," he says.

Stern has 34 students on the roster for his Algebra II Trigonometry but the classroom only has 30 chairs. Absenteeism often alleviates the need for seat scrounging.

He shares his classroom with other teachers. Three times a day, he has to unpack and pack up his laptop and unlock and lock his technology cabinet.

But inconvenience doesn't phase him. He is determined to do good work despite his school's endemic obstacles.

"So much of math is about noticing patterns," says Stern, who should know. Before becoming a teacher, he was a finance analyst and a quality engineer.

In 2004, when Stern was laid off as a project manager for Hyperion Solutions, he joined the ranks of the New York City Teaching Fellows.

"I really like using technology in education," he says. "But, is there an appropriate way to use it in the classroom? I want to be cautious on how it's said because technology is not a magic bullet. One of the things my population of students seems to be missing is that they haven't been looking at the world mathematically."

One way Stern uses technology is by helping his students visualize his lessons through the use of graphing calculators.

His Assistant Principal Richard Fleiss explains, "Howard teaches nearly every lesson with the aid of handheld devices that present math to students in a manner they are used to using for everything in their lives -- technology."

These calculators aren't available from a normal supply closet, so the high school math teacher supplements his students' curriculum by his own fundraising.

Stern has had 34 projects funded through DonorsChoose.org, a total of $43,628. Money trickles in through independent, sometimes anonymous donors, and education funding giants like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Stern recognized the limitations of funding in city schools and found his own way to fill some of those needs for his students' benefit," says Fleiss. "His efforts have enabled him to present material differently than any other teacher in DeWitt Clinton High School, inside and outside the classroom."

One of Stern's greatest joys is AP Calculus Camp, a two-day spring retreat he coordinates for about 50 students to prepare for AP Calculus exams and to teach skills to ready them for college. Stern takes care of all of the logistics, raising funds, planning travel, ordering camp T-shirts and making sure there are enough s'more fixings to go around.

But teaching isn't all that Stern does at DeWitt Clinton. Forty percent of his time is spent as a small learning community coordinator, tracking attendance, and handling disciplinary issues as part of the New York City Department of Education's secondary school reform strategy for large secondary schools.

He is also the school site coordinator for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project to develop objective and reliable measures of effective teaching.

In this day of accountability and standards, "the system Howard uses allows him to gather class data and judge student comprehension immediately rather than at the end of each unit," Fleiss says. "His formative assessments are ongoing and allow him to change the pace of his lesson to accommodate the needs of his students."

Which means that while his school's overcrowded halls or ill-prepared students may be correlated to lower graduation rates, they don't have to be the cause. With a little ingenuity, Stern has found how to enhance his course offerings and encourage his students.

To help Howard A. Stern continue to innovate in his classroom and fund his A.P. Calculus camp, visit DonorsChoose.org: