Three local educators vie for $1 million, world recognition

  • Paul Solarz of Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights helps fifth-grader Michael Campbell with a computer project. Solarz is among the 50 worldwide finalists for the Varkey GEMS Foundation's Global Teacher Prize -- and $1 million.

      Paul Solarz of Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights helps fifth-grader Michael Campbell with a computer project. Solarz is among the 50 worldwide finalists for the Varkey GEMS Foundation's Global Teacher Prize -- and $1 million. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Paul Solarz of Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights is among the 50 finalists worldwide for the Varkey GEMS Foundation's Global Teacher Prize.

      Paul Solarz of Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights is among the 50 finalists worldwide for the Varkey GEMS Foundation's Global Teacher Prize. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Jacqueline Lopushonsky of Lincoln Elementary School in Wheaton is one of 50 educators to be named a finalist for the Varkey GEMS Foundation's Global Teacher Prize.

      Jacqueline Lopushonsky of Lincoln Elementary School in Wheaton is one of 50 educators to be named a finalist for the Varkey GEMS Foundation's Global Teacher Prize. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Jacqueline Lopushonsky of Lincoln Elementary School in Wheaton is one of 50 educators to be named a finalist for the Varkey GEMS Foundation's Global Teacher Prize.

      Jacqueline Lopushonsky of Lincoln Elementary School in Wheaton is one of 50 educators to be named a finalist for the Varkey GEMS Foundation's Global Teacher Prize. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Wheaton's Lincoln Elementary School teacher Jacki Lopushonsky works with Mati Martinez. Lopushonsky is one of the 50 finalists for the Varkey GEMS Foundation "World's Best Teacher" award.

      Wheaton's Lincoln Elementary School teacher Jacki Lopushonsky works with Mati Martinez. Lopushonsky is one of the 50 finalists for the Varkey GEMS Foundation "World's Best Teacher" award. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Evanston High School physics teacher Mark Vondracek of Gurnee was named a finalist in the "World's Best Teacher" award by the Varkey GEMS Foundation. Three Illinois teachers were among 16 U.S. teachers who were finalists for the $1 million prize.

      Evanston High School physics teacher Mark Vondracek of Gurnee was named a finalist in the "World's Best Teacher" award by the Varkey GEMS Foundation. Three Illinois teachers were among 16 U.S. teachers who were finalists for the $1 million prize. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/10/2014 11:16 AM

Three suburban teachers are among the top elementary and high school educators in the world and are vying for a $1 million prize.

The United Arab Emirates-based Varkey GEMS Foundation announced this week that 16 of the 50 finalists for its Global Teacher Prize are from the U.S. That includes Jacqueline Lopushonsky of Wheaton, Paul Solarz of Arlington Heights and Mark Vondracek of Gurnee.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The hefty prize "seeks to do for education what the Nobel Prize has done for science, literature, and peace," according to the website for the foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of GEMS Education, a company with schools worldwide.

Finalists have gone through a rigorous application process that required them to explain their teaching philosophy and demonstrate their achievements in the classroom and beyond.

They must have experience teaching kids to be global citizens, contributing to public debates about raising the bar for teachers, and encouraging others to join the teaching profession.

In February, the top 10 teachers will be invited to attend a global education forum in Dubai. The overall winner will be announced in March. Here's a look at the local finalists:

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Learn like a pirate

"My way of trying to improve education worldwide is to spread it on Twitter or my blog," says Paul Solarz, fifth-grade teacher at Westgate School in Arlington Heights.

Solarz and his students blog, tweet, make videos and use Skype to communicate with students and teachers around the world about the innovative practices in his classroom.

For example, Solarz's class participates in mystery Skype sessions with classrooms throughout the world. Students in each class ask one another yes or no questions, do research, and try to determine what part of the world each other is from. Then they try to learn from each other.

"Ten years ago I didn't feel like I had a reach beyond my students," he said. "Now I feel like I have hundreds or thousands of teachers that can learn some of the things I'm doing and that I can learn from as well."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Solarz, 38, of Mount Prospect, said he was "amazed" to learn he was a finalist. "I was just shocked to think I could be that top 1 percent of teachers in the world."

He credits his students, too.

"I run a student-led classroom. I consider myself one of the members of the team that runs our class," Solarz said.

He is also writing his first book on collaboration and student-run classrooms, called "Learn like a Pirate," that will be published next year.

Co-workers confirm students love Solarz's class.

"In Paul's classroom, students are actively engaged in what they learn," said fellow fifth-grade teacher Paula Sullivan. "The environment is collaborative, upbeat and productive. Students are empowered to take risks and learn from their mistakes, as well as their successes."

Solarz was also the 2014 Teacher of the Year by Illinois Computing Educators for his use of technology in the classroom.

"Why is it just the teacher and student that get to benefit from our final projects? Why not the world?" he said. "Let's get it online and open it to the world so others can see what we're doing. It's not to toot our own horns but to share our ideas and get people thinking about the great things they can do."

'Out of the box'

"I love to travel. I love other cultures," says Jacqueline Lopushonsky, fourth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Wheaton. "I keep the world in my view and try to teach the kids a new worldview."

Whether she's teaching a child with learning disabilities or lecturing other adults at the college level, Lopushonsky tries to incorporate multiculturalism into all of her lessons.

She became hooked on traveling more than 20 years ago, when she spent time in Zimbabwe on a Fulbright Scholarship. Since then, she has made an effort to travel overseas every summer. Her trips have taken her to schools in Central America and orphanages in Africa and Asia.

To share her experiences, Lopushonsky said she thinks "outside the box, pretty much 100 percent of the time." That includes pairing her students with pen pals from other countries, doing video chats with kids in foreign classrooms, and hosting fundraisers to collect school supplies and money for less fortunate children across the globe.

"I get to come back and teach my students about all the places I've been, all the other cultures in the world," she said. "It's like going to play every day. It's the epitome of a job for me."

Lopushonsky taught in Oak Park for about 14 years before coming to Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 about eight years ago. She teaches reading, writing and math for fourth- and fifth-grade special education students.

Lopushonsky most enjoys working with students who have behavior disorders because she is able to help them find their way.

"They sometimes come to me not knowing what their strengths are, and it's a privilege to be able to unearth those," she said.

English language learners are also a delight, she said, because they are "the most interesting kids in the world."

Lopushonsky has already thought about what she would spend the $1 million on if she won. Before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, she said she had the idea of hosting a forum for police and minority youths that would be "a kind of over-the-table thing." She also would like to support the orphanages she has worked with in the past and help former students, who are now adults, pursue their dreams.

A flexible style

"It sounds non-teacher-like to say this, but I've never written down a lesson plan in 20 years," said Mark Vondracek, physics instructor at Evanston Township High School.

He also has never kicked a kid out of class.

That flexible teaching style is resonating with education industry experts.

And it's not the first time Vondracek, 46, has been on an educator award shortlist. In 2005, he was runner-up for Illinois Teacher of the Year.

Vondracek, who also serves as board president at Woodland Elementary District 50 in Gurnee, said he builds trust, encourages his pupils to become critical thinkers and bases his teaching strategy on questions and answers he receives from the students. He said flexibility and knowing how to read his pupils have been among the keys to his success.

"One of my most proud achievements is I've never had to kick a kid out of a classroom in my 20 years," he said.

Vondracek launched his career as a physics teacher at Amundsen High School on North Damen Avenue in Chicago. After a little more than three years, he joined Evanston Township High where he also works as a research assistant.

Woodland Superintendent Joy Swoboda said the district is fortunate Vondracek has volunteered his time as a school board member for seven years.

"His compassion for students and passion for education have made him an extraordinary educator and someone I admire and have been privileged to work with for the last seven years," Swoboda said. "Knowing him on a personal level, it is obvious that when he teaches, he is an inspiration to students each day they walk into his classroom."

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