Wiseburn educator named finalist for Presidential Award

Photo of Maria Garcia.

Maria Garcia, grade eight math teacher and Math Department Chair at R.H. Dana Middle School.

Maria Garcia, an grade eight math teacher and Math Department Chair at R.H. Dana Middle School, is one of six exceptional mathematics and science teachers to be named finalists from California for the 2021 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

Each year, California can recommend three state nominees in mathematics teaching and three state nominees in science teaching for the honor. Finalists must display subject mastery, appropriate use of instructional methods and strategies, lifelong learning, and leadership in education outside the classroom. This marks Garcia’s second time as a state finalist for PAEMST, after her last recognition in 2019.

Established by Congress in 1983, the PAEMST are the highest recognition that an elementary or secondary mathematics or science teacher may receive. The PAEMST program is administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

"This is a well-deserved recognition for a teacher who exemplifies all that is great with teaching and learning,” said Wiseburn Superintendent Blake Silvers. “Maria engages her students and encourages them to take risks, to inquire, to make mistakes — and she challenges every student to find new, innovative, and creative ways to solve problems. She is a gift to the Wiseburn Unified School District and has supported over a decade's worth of students in their quest to fully understand mathematics.”

A teacher of 20 years, Garcia began her teaching career after becoming a mother to two daughters and realizing how much she loved being around kids. She returned to school to finish her bachelor’s degree and specialized in math, a subject she frequently tutored others in throughout her time in college.

“It just was nature, I guess, for me to be able to articulate my thoughts and mathematics to people and help them understand,” Garcia said.

In the classroom, Garcia brings math to life for her students by making a personal connection, something that’s been especially critical during distance learning.

Each year, Garcia selects a book that becomes that class’ theme. This year, the class book was Barney Saltzberg’s Beautiful Oops!, a book about embracing mistakes as opportunities to create something meaningful.

This set the tone for Garcia’s students to discover patterns through trial and error without being afraid to sometimes land on an incorrect answer. Garcia also centers instruction on collaboration with peers to allow students to learn from one another’s approaches to math problems. In the lesson submitted to PAEMST, this layered approach was used as students learned to complete the square of a binomial.

“It was more of them discovering it and thinking it through in order to enhance their learning,” Garcia said.

Her collaborative, interactive, and compassionate teaching style is one of the reasons Jose Rivas, the parent of a student of Garcia, nominated her for the PAEMST.

Rivas, a physics and engineering teacher at Lennox Mathematics, Science & Technology Academy, actually first met Garcia at Loyola Marymount University, where they both studied. The pair continued to collaborate over the years, and after Rivas was selected for a PAEMST in 2017 and encouraged to nominate others for the award, he said Garcia was one of the first names to come to mind.

“She's very thoughtful in her instruction. She focuses on the whole child. She connects with students, building relationships — the most important things a teacher can do — to foster a community in the classroom,” Rivas said. “And she does that very well.”

Rivas’ daughter is now approaching her junior year in high school and continues to do well in her math classes, Rivas said.

“All those foundational skills that she had with Maria transferred over to what she's doing now,” he explained.

In addition to her teaching schedule, Garcia hosts Math Saturday Events for parents and students. Garcia created the Girls Who Code Club at Dana and has led the Mommy and Me coding event. She launched a Hack-a-Challenge in which students from grades five through twelve came together to work on creating and building a robot that could successfully clean the surrounding beaches in the community.

In the past, she was also involved with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for which she organized STEM Nights and then trained other educators to run. These events brought students and their parents and caretakers to a fun evening of interactive, STEM-based activities. Garcia said she did this because of her experiences growing up as a child of immigrants.

“My parents had a respect for the educational system here in this country, but also a little bit of fear of the unknown, and they would never go to school events like this, or they never felt comfortable talking to an educator, since both of them didn't go beyond a middle school education,” Garcia said. “So what I wanted is for other immigrant parents, or any type of parents, to be okay with coming to school with their kids and being involved in their education at a different level.”

With the PAEMST state finalists selected, a national committee will now convene to review the candidates and make nominations to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. From there, the White House will decide on the final awardees, who will travel to Washington, D.C. and receive a stipend. The process can take years to complete, but in the meantime the California Mathematics Council will honor Garcia and the other two state nominees in mathematics teaching at their upcoming conference in November 2021.