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Her struggles become others' successes

By Greg Gelpi

Admittedly, math and science were never her strong areas in school, but now Clayton County teacher Vicki Jacobs is being recognized for her successes in teaching both subjects.

Jacobs, 44, taught for 20 years at McGarrah Elementary School and works as an Early Intervention Program teacher for Callaway Elementary School. She has been selected as a 2004 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching state finalist.

"I'm sneaking it in there," she said of her science lessons. "I've seen how my kids' academic performance improved as I beefed up the scientific inquiry. It really transferred to all academic areas."

Using scientific inquiry as her tool, she weaves science into many academic areas of her teaching as she reaches out to her students.

"It's pretty cool when I work with her," Soky Taing, 10, said.

Taing, a Cambodian native, has been in America for about a year, but has worked with Jacobs to learn the English language.

As an Early Intervention Program teacher, Jacobs works with and supports other teachers.

"If I don't understand something in class, she explains it better than my teacher does," said Janaye Corbray, 10.

Travas Bibbs, 10, said that Jacobs has improved his ability to read.

"If I'm reading something and I get stuck, she helps me with it," he said.

Although she excels in teaching math and science, those subjects weren't always easy for Jacobs.

"Interestingly enough, I was a very weak math and science student," Jacobs said. "But, I'm a very strong math and science teacher because I recognize a lot of the problems my students are having."

When she recognized her own weaknesses, she began taking more and more courses on teaching math and science in the 1990s to re-establish her "confidence." Now, she spends time in class observing students, so that she can identify and address individual problems.

Jacobs also makes science hands-on and evokes scientific inquiry by letting her students learn about and play with Blanche and Zelda, leopard geckos she keeps in the school's library.

"I'm one of those people who believe in the therapeutic benefits of animals," Jacobs said. "As often as I can, I bring the kids up here because they are just fascinated by geckos."

She believes and demonstrates in her teaching that everyone can be a scientist, she said.

Jacobs, one of 239 finalists nationally and one of only two science finalists in the state, was honored during the Georgia Science Teachers Association Convention.

If she's a national finalist, she will meet President Bush in Washington D.C. The award is the nation's highest honor for K-12 teaching in the fields of math and science.

"The best teachers deserve to know that the rest of us recognize and value their molding of the future of the nation in their classrooms," said Mark Saul, program director of Elementary, Secondary and Informal Education programs at the National Science Foundation. "By providing models of teachers who demonstrate daily how to move students in every kind of school to do better than they thought their best could be, we hope to unleash similar creativity in other teachers and to attract new recruits to the mathematics and science teaching profession."

The award program was established by Congress in 1983 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation.