Carlos Verdecchia: an uncommonly educated high school teacher
“My English was not that good when I started at Berea College,” Carlos Verdecchia said. Then he grinned broadly and continued, “That was probably why I was there for five years.” He graduated in 1991. Verdecchia was born and raised until sixteen in Argentina. Considering English was his second language, he did well enough in high school to suggest great potential to Berea College. Exactly 20 years after his graduation from Berea, now a well-established high school science teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, Verdecchia was one of 23 teachers to be recognized as an “All American Teacher of the Year” by the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI).
Verdecchia recollected: “In my first year at Berea I was taking some remedial classes to improve my English. I remember being impressed by the small class sizes and the dedication of my teachers. I had some awesome teachers. They laid a foundation for me that first year that helped me be successful in all my academic pursuits thereafter.”
His academic pursuits have been somewhat extraordinary. Verdecchia graduated from Berea College with a bachelor’s degree in biology and was accepted quickly into a master’s program at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. At one time he considered his biology degree a stepping stone to a degree in medicine, but at UK his focus turned to food science. He obtained his master’s in food science and immediately proceeded toward a doctorate.
A year into the doctorate program, Verdecchia was offered a job as a private food inspector. It offered broad travel both in the U.S. and globally. He put the doctorate on hold for three years and experienced the world through his work. When he returned to the University of Kentucky his focus was split: He finished his doctorate in food science but, at the same time, he earned a master’s in education. Somewhere on the road during his three years as a food inspector, Verdecchia saw himself becoming a teacher.
He could have become a professor — and he said he still may — but Verdecchia found the prospect of working with younger people more compelling. Doctorates are a minority in US high schools. Amazingly, there have been as many as three at Bryan Station High School in the same year.
“I would have never applied for the [All American Teacher of the Year] award,” Verdecchia said. “Somebody nominated me and then I filled out an application.” When he was notified that he and twenty-two other high school math and science teachers had won, he said he was surprised. He was thrilled by the trip to Washington, D.C. to meet his co-winners, celebrate with NMSI staff and their corporate sponsors, receive his trophy and cash prize, and spend some time on the hill talking shop with legislative staff and members of Congress.
What’s mattered the most though, Verdecchia said, has been the back pats and congratulations he has received since he brought his trophy home.
NMSI, a Texas non-profit, exists to promote math and science education. The organization was founded in part to change the tide of diminishing performance in these fields by American students when compared to other countries. The on-the-ground tool for change promoted by NMSI and wielded by Verdecchia and other high school teachers is “Advanced Placement” classes in math and science — also known as “AP classes.” These are college-level classes taught in high school. At the end of a term, students may pay for and take a test to score their college-level proficiency in the subject. Depending on the college or university, these scores may earn AP students college credit; effectively, they may waive the necessity to take the equivalent classes in college.
“The AP science courses are hard,” Verdecchia said. “During the AP course students might not do so well. When it’s time to take the test they don’t see the point.” Verdecchia went on to say at Bryan Station the cost of the exam isn’t an issue. Grants reduce the price by half and, if a student wants to take the test but cannot afford to pay 50%, “We take that off the table. We’ll find the money.” Still, it’s hard to motivate students to take the test if they lack confidence in their ability to do well.
Drawing students into the AP science classes is another challenge. Kids anticipate college-level science is hard and, as AP class grades become a part of their high school transcript, some don’t want to take the risk to their overall grade point average. Verdecchia has fought this for five years. “The first two or three years we offered AP biology and chemistry it was all I could do to enlist 10 kids — the minimum number required to offer a course — but this year 29 students enrolled in my class.”
Verdecchia is passionate about his AP courses. He believes the rewards for students are not just passing scores and college credit, they include encouragement and self-esteem. Bryan Station High School serves a lot of low income families with kids who believe their likelihood of going to college is small. Verdecchia said he doesn’t pull any punches in delivering a class that’s truly college level, and he lets his students know that just finishing the course is an accomplishment; passing it in high school is an achievement; doing well enough to earn college credit is exceptional.
While having the AP credit might not make it any easier for some students to go to college, “it helps them want to,” Verdecchia said. A student with commendable AP performance knows that his or her intellectual abilities are not a factor limiting their chances at college. They should believe that high school is not the pinnacle of their education.
“Hardly a year goes by that I don’t write some letters of recommendation to Berea College on behalf of Bryan Station students,” Verdecchia added. A significant percentage of students attending Bryan Station meet the limited-financial-means guidelines for admission to Berea College. He enjoys the opportunity to tell students about his alma mater. In fact, he displays the BC logo on the door to his classroom.
When asked about his fondest memory of being a student at Berea, he smiled and answered, “Of course, I’ve mentioned the teachers and the small class size, and I made many friends I stay in touch with … I enjoyed my time on the soccer team … but my fondest memory? That’s got to be meeting my wife-to-be there. She was a nursing student and is a nurse, now. We were married in ’95 and have three great kids.”