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Award-Winning Teacher Gets a Lesson in Irony

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Social studies teacher Alan Haskvitz is on a winning streak--at least outside his own school district in the San Gabriel Valley.

Last month, Reader’s Digest named Haskvitz one of its 10 national “Heroes in Education,” an award that carries a $15,000 prize, $10,000 of which goes to the school and $5,000 to the teacher. Now, Learning magazine has named the 48-year-old teacher the recipient of its “Professional Best” leadership award. The honor comes with a new Oldsmobile worth $19,000.

Haskvitz, an intense, bearded man with a knack for promoting himself and jousting with administrators, is gratified by his recent fame. But despite the recognition he has brought to Suzanne Middle School, the Walnut school district has repeatedly turned down his application to become a mentor teacher, a program through which outstanding teachers share their techniques with other teachers.

The irony of this isn’t lost on Haskvitz, who sometimes feels like a prophet unrecognized in his own land. “It upsets me,” said the eighth-grade teacher, sitting during a class break with his hands neatly folded on his desk. “I sure would like to share.”

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District officials say the mentor teacher projects submitted by Haskvitz were turned down because they weren’t competitive. “The committee based its decision on the needs of the district and the needs of teachers and . . . Al’s project fell into the cracks,” said Yvonne Sevilla, Walnut’s coordinator of staff development.

Conversely, the committee turned down Haskvitz’s proposal to teach teachers the new social studies guidelines set forth by the state. Another rejected proposal was to evaluate the California Assessment Program social studies tests and lead teacher workshops on how to help students earn higher scores.

One way Haskvitz raises his own student test scores is by making abstract ideas tangible to 13- and 14-year-olds.

“As a teacher, you get paid the same amount of money if you give kids handouts and textbooks,” Haskvitz said. “But I try to have kids solve problems that are real.”

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Earlier this year, for instance, he assigned students to write to Manuel Noriega as the deposed Panamanian dictator sat in a maximum-security Florida prison cell awaiting trial on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges. The object, Haskvitz said, was to get “both sides of the story” regarding the U.S. invasion of Panama.

To everyone’s surprise, Noriega responded, sending back a one-page, handwritten letter in Spanish that sent the press swooping down on the campus. Haskvitz said school administrators responded by chiding him for disturbing the peace and failing to keep them informed of his actions.

Haskvitz and his pupils had better luck with a proposed anti-litter law, which they wrote and then persuaded a local legislator to sponsor in the California Legislature. Last week, the measure passed the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

The eighth-graders also distributed 5,000 water conservation kits in Walnut, which should save 23 million gallons of water this year, he said.

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In his five years at Suzanne Middle School, Haskvitz has also assigned students to simplify arcane polling instructions so that voters can understand them and to construct board games that can be played alongside history lessons.


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