Click photo to enlarge
Students Bryce Zielinski, left, 16, Marisa Sozzi, center,16, and Stefania Sozzi, 15, play on the new Smart Board inside the new state-of-the-art chemistry wing at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, Calif., on Thursday, May 1, 2014. The new chemistry wing consists of two classrooms and will have the most up-to-date equipment comparable to college laboratories. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD -- Ygnacio Valley High School Principal Stephen Brady, perched on a stool in the school's new 3,280-square foot, Measure C-funded chemistry lab building, says, "Sometimes, shiny things matter. They make kids get excited about curriculum."

Measure C, passed in 2010, sent $6.7 million to each of the five high schools in the Mt. Diablo school district. With a $2 million upgrade to a nearby science wing, opening the doors of the $1.6 million chem lab represents a giant step.

And that is in addition to renovations to the gymnasium, which now boasts a sports medicine weight room, a ceramics studio with an outside kiln, a woodworking shop with construction elements and a metal shop, including robotics capabilities.

Brady says he's just getting his engines revving: the introduction of an International Baccalaureate program is next on his agenda.

"The most important skill sets are in reading, writing and science," he says. "I'd like to see those, and standardized testing scores, go up. Dropout rates, the number of falling grades, the "F's" in this year's freshman class -- those must go down," said Brady,

The solution lies not just in the shiny PASCO instrumentation (the real-world, real-time, data-gathering SPARK mobile devices students will use in the lab) or the 20, Cat 6 Ethernet ports hooking up to the Internet at high speeds or the new, interactive SMART boards and overhead LCD projectors.


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And while the school already boasts the Puente Program (a four-year tracking program aimed at better preparing high schoolers for entry into four-year colleges) and health science and education academies emphasizing project-based learning and geared to get students into jobs with a minimum of college or vocational training, Brady wants more.

"The International Baccalaureate is a magnet for drawing students to the school," he says. "It teaches students to think about the world and it takes the older notion of advanced placement classes and makes it more sophisticated."

The International Baccalaureate is a nonprofit educational foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland, offering programs in which students learn from a global perspective. YVHS is entering the application process and Brady says the school is "ideal" for the program.

Brady is concerned about dropping enrollment at the school, and feels a sense of urgency. But he's also careful.

"You can do something in a hurry and you'll make mistakes," he says. The 2015-2016 calendar year is his target date for launching IB.

Until then, one need look no farther for clues to what will inspire students and faculty than the gleam in the eyes of Rochelle Macaluso, a chemistry and physics teacher at Ygnacio Valley for 13 years.

"In the real world, instrumentation is where it's at," she says, referring to the Chevron grants she said funded the lab's 10 SPARK "boxes."

"The technology is the hook," she says. "For all of us teachers who are active science learners, we won't be obsolete in four months. Students see that."

Gary Macaluso, teaching biology and chemistry at YVHS for the past four years, after a career as a hazardous waste chemist, shares his co-worker's (and spouse's) enthusiasm.

"Our prior lab was half this size, with the same number of desks. If you're working with a chemical, you don't usually cause an accident, the person next to you causes it by knocking over what you are doing. It wasn't unsafe before, but the new lab is a safer environment because we have more space."

Maria Mata, 18, plans to go into government. The school student body vice president says she is the first in her family to go to college.

The new lab, she says, "is cool," because "the students will engage with more space and new technology."

Using a finger to write on the SMART board, she says, "We're adapted to this kind of learning because of our phones."

Patrick Valencia, 18, also a senior, sees opportunity in the new lab.

"It's amazing. It gives students something other schools don't have," he says. "Before, the teacher was amazing, but goggles broke and setbacks happened all the time. When students have better facilities, the whole flow changes the campus."

Brady says the school will gather three years of data from the IB program before measuring its impact. In the meantime, learning new skills and adjusting to correct mistakes will be not just students' work, but the shared purpose of everyone at Ygnacio Valley.

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