"One time, one of my friends came to my class to pick up some papers," said Union Hill senior Gloria Pontocarrero last week. When Pontocarrero's friend heard her teacher, Luisa Marcos, conducting the class, "My friend leaned over and said, 'This woman is crazy!' My friend couldn't believe what she was seeing."
And to the uninitiated, Union Hill AP Chemistry teacher Luisa Marcos' "in-your-face" style of teaching may seem unusual. All nervous energy and rapid-fire speech, Marcos is a study in immersion. Totally focused on her students and the chemistry problems that fill her chalkboards, Marcos's sentences sometimes fall off or end abruptly, as a new thought enters her mind. It can be exhausting just listening to her.
But it is exactly this unbridled enthusiasm that has garnered Marcos the respect and admiration of students and fellow teachers. And added to that list of admirers is the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Foundation, who in June chose Marcos as one of the three New Jersey finalists for the Presidential Award for teaching science.
The final decision will be made this month by a judging panel. If Marcos wins, it will make Union Hill the only high school in the nation to boast two winners. The winner gets to meet President George W. Bush.
Marcos was scheduled to be feted at a luncheon in Trenton on October 1, 2003 by New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey.
Marcos' track record as a teacher of Advanced Placement chemistry is flawless. According to Union Hill officials, since Marcos took over the AP Chemistry class in 1987, every single one of her students has passed the international advanced placement test. Nationally, only 57 percent of students pass the test.
Marcos' supervisor, Nadia Makar, a 1989 winner of the Presidential Award herself, was effusive in a recent interview about Marcos and what she means to Union Hill. Said Makar, "She's a gem. If all teachers were like her, it would be heaven. She is enthusiastic, professional and a perfectionist. Whatever it is she chooses to do, she excels in it."
The relationship between Makar and Marcos goes well beyond the walls of the school and began when Marcos first arrived at Union Hill in 1987. Said Makar, "She really got my attention when I first met her. I remember walking into her classroom after she had taught and I looked at the chalkboards - they were full of equations - and I thought to myself, 'This is someone special.' "
It was then, according to Makar, that she offered Marcos her assistance as a mentor. This offer endeared the women to each other, both on a professional and personal level. Said Marcos, "That meant a lot to me. I think everyone needs a mentor when they start out with something new."
Bio and chemistry
Marcos came to the education field in a somewhat roundabout way. She, by her own admission, was not attracted to teaching as a young person, as teachers traditionally are. After earning a double bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry from St. Peter's College, she immediately went to graduate school, earning her Masters' degree in chemistry from Fairleigh Dickinson University. After getting her degree, Marcos went to work for Lever Brothers Research Company in Edgewater for two years as a research chemist.
After getting married and leaving her job at Lever Bros. and having two children over a period of years, Marcos found herself at a professional crossroads. According to Marcos, teaching "was just one of those things that happens in life that you just fall into. That's how it happened for me."
Marcos draws from the fact that she has "seen both sides of the coin," being in the private sector before becoming a teacher. She believes that this gives her and by extension, her students, an advantage in that she has seen how the business world works and what the students need to know to be successful.
Said Marcos, "It's about more than science. They need to know so much - not just the science part of it. They also need to know the marketing side of things as well. I try to teach them that."
Interestingly, the only bump in the road came in the four-year period between 1996 and 2000, when Marcos left Union Hill to teach at High Tech High School in North Bergen. According to Nadia Makar, scores immediately and dramatically dropped. Her absence left a vacuum that was only filled when Marcos returned to the Union Hill family in 2000. Said Marcos of her time away, "I had a good offer from High Tech High School. They didn't have an AP program or a science fair program so I put those together and ran the programs."
During her tenure at High Tech High School, Marcos earned kudos from a local daily newspaper in 1999 and 2000 in recognition for starting the programs at the school and dramatically improving test scores.
Upon her return to Union Hill, Marcos picked up right where she left off, and scores once again jumped.
Supervisor Nadia Makar went so far as to call Marcos the "Jaime Escalante" of Union Hill. Escalante was the real-life subject of the hit movie "Stand and Deliver." Escalante took a ragtag collection of East L.A. kids and helped them pass the rigorous AP Calculus exam.
Said Makar, "We are a school where we have all different types of students, and she does such a wonderful job. She has had a great effect on the students here."
The fact is, Marcos' students don't just pass the test, they ace it. Which is part of Marcos' overall philosophy of teaching.
"Math and chemistry collectively is a language," she said. "There are numbers, but you just have to use your mind to translate the numbers in a problem. I try to show the students how to use both sides of their brains to connect the parts."
Marcos admits that science, especially the advanced chemistry that she teaches, can be a daunting venture, to say the least.
Said Marcos, "Last year, the number one student in the school [who received a 1490 on her SATs) was asking questions the whole time. Even she didn't 'get it' right away."
Concurs Science Supervisor Nadia Makar, "[When it comes to science] you really have to make the connection."
Marcos offers no magic method of learning and internalizing the type of science she teaches. It's really all about practice, practice, practice. Marcos' drill sergeant-style instills an almost militaristic confidence in her students. In fact, on a recent visit to one of Marcos' AP Chemistry classes, the atmosphere in the classroom was informal yet charged with electricity not seen in many urban classrooms. Marcos' clearly inspires her students to go beyond what they think they can do.
Said Junior Yusney Abreu, 16, a student in Marcos' AP chemistry class, "She's really the best teacher I've ever had. She's incredible. She really gets into it and that really helps."
Union Hill Principal David Wilcommes, who started the whole thing in motion by nominating Marcos for the competition, was effusive in his support for his teacher. Said Wilcommes, "The enthusiasm and excitement she brings to the classroom environment in general is great. The kids get to succeed and they love that. They get a feeling of accomplishment in her class."
Added Wilcommes, "The biggest thing she gives them is that they get to see that they are just as capable as students in any other school district."