Marianne Chowning-Dray, a math teacher at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, was one of 108 teachers in the country to receive this year's prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching from President Barack Obama.
The award is given annually to "outstanding" K-12 science and mathematics teachers who are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level, according to a White House press release.
Each year the award switches between educators teaching kindergarten through 6th grade and those teaching 7th through 12th grades. This year's awardees, named last week, teach 7th through 12th grades.
Chowning-Dray is a Palo Alto native and Gunn High School graduate who taught calculus at Gunn for nine years before joining the Eastside faculty in 2005. She said toward the end of her time at Gunn, she got to know the Eastside community through helping a teacher she knew get an Advanced Placement (AP) calculus program off the ground. Soon after, the school received funding to expand its math sequence to include BC calculus, the next level after AB calculus, and needed someone to help them develop the class.
"I had gotten to know the school and was just really moved and motivated by their mission," Chowning-Dray said Thursday. "It (the BC calculus class) fit my skill set and just felt like the right place for me at the time and it has been."
Eastside is an independent school that serves middle and high school students who have significant financial need and would be the first in their families to go to college. In a 2013 Palo Alto Weekly story on Eastside's efforts to close the achievement gap, Chowning-Dray described the school's culture: "It's assumed that everyone will participate, everyone can do this, that all students can achieve at a high level. We don't take no for an answer."
Chowning-Dray said she drew on her experience in the Gunn math department to create a BC calculus program that closely mirrors that of her former school. By her second year, a group of Eastside students were already taking the new, more advanced class. Now in her eighth year at Eastside, about one-third of the student population is in the class each year.
"With an AP pass rate of at least 80 percent over the last seven years, the program speaks to the fact that when students are immersed in high expectations and given the necessary supports, possibilities are boundless," reads a profile on Chowning-Dray on the Presidential Award website.
All students at Eastside are required to take five years of math, with a double load their freshman years, Chowning-Dray said.
"Every student at Eastside really has a very robust experience across disciplines, but I think they really have emphasized math and science and tried to develop their STEM preparation classes to help students move toward that in college if that's their interest.
"What we've noticed is that when they get to college, they already have that in their pocket so they're ready to progress in a STEM-related field if that's what they choose," she added. "That's really powerful."
Chowning-Dray also noted that this is the second year in a row an Eastside teacher has received the Presidential Award. Last year, sixth-grade math teacher Suney Park won.
Chowning-Dray was one of California's two winning teachers. On top of presidential bragging rights, the winners receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation to be used at their discretion. (She has not yet determined how she'll use it.) They also are invited to Washington, DC, for an awards ceremony later this summer, plus events and meetings with members of the Obama administration.
"These teachers are shaping America's success through their passion for math and science," President Obama said in the press release. "Their leadership and commitment empower our children to think critically and creatively about science, technology, engineering, and math. The work these teachers are doing in our classrooms today will help ensure that America stays on the cutting edge tomorrow."