Raleigh teacher sets an example for her students

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
North Carolina Secretary of Department of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart

RALEIGH — Joanne Blumenfeld has only been at Broughton High School a short time, but her enthusiasm and passion are contagious. She’s already managed to spark the imagination and curiosity of her class of students with disabilities. On Tuesday, her students were gearing up in lab coats on for a special lesson on laboratory safety when she was surprised with a visit from Donald van der Vaart, the N.C. Secretary of Environmental Quality, who presented her with a certificate in environmental education. Blumenfeld didn’t take the opportunity to enjoy the applause – instead she used it as another teachable moment. “I keep telling you that you have to continue your education,’ she said to her students, “now you see me and my work to try something new and learn more.”She worked through the summer with these and 23 other special needs high school students from across the state in a competition in which the groups build and present an invention. The program, called CATALYST, sponsors a competition in late September where these Broughton students will take their invention head to head with students from all over the country. They will spend the next month getting ready. The program is one of a wide range of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM,-focused educational programs that are getting a lot of attention lately. The N.C. public school systems is challenged with preparing North Carolina’s high school students for a rapidly changing economy. The state’s growing technology sector is helping drive down unemployment rates, now at 4.7 percent, below the 4.9 percent national unemployment rate. But preparing North Carolina’s students to take the jobs that will be opening as the industry grows is a challenge facing high schools, universities and community colleges.Broughton is also among the N.C. schools offering AP environmental science. At Broughton, Ms. Woodall’s class got a chance to ask questions of Van der Vaart, who advised the students to consider the breadth of knowledge needed for a career in environmental management.”You have to know the laws, be a good communicator, read the newspapers, know what’s going on,” he advised. “Everything we do generates waste. Now, we are fortunate enough to live in a country that can afford environmental protections, but that requires a strong economy.”The students talked with him about clean up of the coal ash spill, maintaining a safe water supply and climate change.”Climate change is a complicated issue. Our understanding is that there is climate change, man-made things have had something to do with it. But what we are not good at yet is being able to predict it.”Walking the halls of the iconic high school, built in 1929 in downtown Raleigh, brought back memories for Van der Vaart – he graduated from Broughton as a young man. A father himself, the visit also made him optimistic about the future. “Its exciting that they are studying environmental sciences,” said Van der Vaart. “These guys are our next generation of scientists. They are going to have to solve the problems that we leave them.” His number one piece of advice to the students? ” do your homework,” he said.