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Putnam math/science educator wins presidential award

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For Barbara "Tootie" Black, teaching science doesn't have to be boring -- it can mean anything from raising salmon to adulthood to teaching students about the stars in the sky with a portable planetarium.

Black, a former third-grade teacher at West Teays Elementary School, was named a 2013 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, an annual award given to K-12 teachers from the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Black taught at West Teays for 15 years before accepting a job in August as the principal at nearby Hometown Elementary School. She said although there were more students in the five third-grade classes she taught at West Teays than there are in Hometown's entire elementary school -- there are nearly 700 students at West Teays and 86 at Hometown -- she feels confident she can bring a lot to the table with her previous experience.

"Before I left West Teays, I wrote a grant for a high tunnel [greenhouse] there, and they're set to receive one. I've done the same thing for Hometown, and ours is in the works too," Black said. "I'm a teaching principal, and so I still teach, and I've brought a lot of what I was doing there to this school."

Raising salmon was one of the projects Black did with her third-graders every year, and one she has introduced to the students at Hometown. She receives the salmon eggs every September or October, and her students are able to see the fish grow while learning about things like their diet, life cycle and habitat.

"At the end, we'll reintroduce them to an endangered stream they're trying to reclaim," she said.

During her time teaching at West Teays, Black said she focused on hands-on teaching as a way to reach a wider range of her students. She spent three to five days each school year teaching her students about the solar system with a portable planetarium, and was very involved with Project SIMPLE -- Science with Inquiry Modules and Problem-based Learning Experiences -- a statewide project sponsored through the Department of Education.

At Hometown Elementary, she has introduced something else: a partnership with West Virginia State University in which a representative from the college visits Hometown each month to read students a story related to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields and engage in various activities.

"We're very proud of Tootie -- she's a top-notch teacher," said Putnam County Schools Superintendent Chuck Hatfield. "Tootie's expertise is science -- she's always been very involved in the areas of math and science, and very creative. She thinks outside of the box, and we encourage that. We're not surprised that she was able to do great things in the area of science, and we've always supported her."

Hatfield said Black's success is something the county strives for, which is why Putnam County has the highest-paid teachers of any county in the state. Its educators are also the most educated -- more than 60 percent of the county's teachers hold a master's degree or doctoral degree.

"We work very hard at recruiting and retaining. We support our teachers in any way we can, through training and support," Hatfield said. "We really consider them to be the experts, so we listen to them. They're very valued, and I think they recognize that. Our board has always been very supportive in paying teachers, as well, because we feel that if we're going to be the best system in the state and have the best employees, we need to reward them."

Black has received another reward for her hard work -- $10,000 from the National Science Foundation to recognize her success. According to her, she already has a plan to pay it forward.

"I'm going to help my son," she said. "He's at Marshall [University] right now getting his master's in education -- he's going to teach middle and high school history."

Each year, the awards alternate between K-6 teachers and teachers in grades 7-12. After a selection process at the state level, a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators choose the winners.

Black is one of two West Virginia educators to receive the award. The other, Gabrielle Rhodes, is a teacher at Union Elementary School in Buckhannon.

Nominations for the 2014 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching are open through April 1. For information, visit www.paemst.org.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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