SCHOOLS | May 6, 2019
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week and we are highlighting teachers throughout the district. This week, we will be highlighting a different teacher each day for the work their commitment to students. Please share this story and help us shout out CPS teachers all week.
Meet 2018 Yale Educator Award winner Robert Clarke, who teaches at Solorio High School in the Gage Park neighborhood.
Before becoming Solorio’s Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus teacher, Robert Clarke spent 16 years working in the investment management industry and traveled the world.
Although, he says he has always known that one day he would become a math teacher.
“Unsolicited feedback was always that I would make a great teacher,” said Clarke, who has now taught at Solorio for eight years. “I was working on a long-term system project, which involved visiting different offices. I learned to be a good listener and how to explain things to people.”
He says it was those skills that helped him become an effective teacher and now he’s able to pull from personal experiences when challenging his students to see the value in math.
“Knowing how competitive it is in the workplace, I feel like I have pretty high standards [for my students],” said Clarke. “In the industry that I worked in, if you made a math error, you might lose your job…numbers actually mean something.”
It’s that level of excellence that Clarke says he requires from students who step foot into his class. He does his best to instill lifelong lessons such as working with purpose and not simply “going through the motions.”
He says his students are encouraged to be confident in their solutions and effectively explain their steps.
“I would like them to not only graduate with math skills, but also have the presentation skills where they can walk into a corporate job someday and be really effective,” he said.
Clarke’s impact on his students goes beyond the classroom. He has high expectations and his students rise to meet them.
Former student Karla Lopez, who is now a freshman at the University of Chicago, says Clarke influenced her decision to apply to U of C because that’s where Clarke earned his master’s degree.
Lopez says that Clarke has had an meaningful impact on her life and she admires his diligence.
“When Mr. Clarke sets a goal, he will do everything in his control to achieve the goal he has set,” she said. “He will always give full effort on his part and never give up in the midst of hardship.”
Inspire a Generation
On the back wall of Clarke’s classroom hang two boards.
On one board is a group photo of his juniors who scored in the 90th percentile on the SAT math portion. The board also includes a bar chart documenting their improvement from the PSAT taken in the fall to their final SAT scores in the spring. Perhaps fittingly, in bold letters written across the board is “Catch Me If You Can.”
The second board’s tagline is “Fives are Forever.” This display, says Clarke, celebrates his seniors who scored a five on the AP Calculus exam. He puts up individual student photos with their nameplates and includes the college they plan to attend.
“The reason I do that is because I want the incoming students to see what’s possible if you apply yourself,” said Clarke. “I feel like you can use student success to inspire other students.”
He adds with pride that his students’ success in AP Calculus surpassed the global pass rate last year.
“On that test, it’s about 58 percent and all of our students who took the AP exam had a 70 percent pass rate,” said Clarke. “That felt outstanding.”
The school started its Dual Credit/Dual Enrollment program five years ago with Daley College. Clarke was Solorio’s first teacher to teach the program, which is is offered at many other CPS high schools.
Students who participate take rigorous college-level courses at Daley beginning their junior year. Each year, students who meet a minimum 2.5 GPA and 90% attendance requirement are invited to take the City Colleges of Chicago placement test to get into the program.
“Due to financial considerations, many of our graduates end up attending one of the City Colleges of Chicago at some point,” said Clarke. “If a student can graduate from high school with six hours of college credit, it helps the student earn an Associates Degree more quickly without the financial burden of paying tuition. That is a win-win situation for the student.”
Moises Reyes, a 2018 graduate, is majoring in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Mr. Clarke kept me under his wing since my freshman year of high school when I joined the math team,” said Reyes, who also participated in the dual enrollment program.
“I gained a passion for mathematics and engineering because of Mr. Clarke,” he said, adding that Clarke knew how to make math “exciting.”
“If it were not for the math team and the math classes I took in high school, I would not be on the the career path I am on now,” said Reyes.
Clarke says he wanted to give students another opportunity to get more practice with advanced math and problem solving so he formed the school’s math team.
Some of his former students have gone off to elite universities such as Yale, Northwestern, University of Chicago and more. This year he has a student who was accepted into Harvard.
Class of 2018 graduate David Diaz is now a freshman at Yale University. He’s a prospective computer science major. In one word, Diaz describes Clarke as “dedicated.”
“Mr. Clarke is an educator who takes this role as far more than a paycheck,” said Diaz. “From staying countless hours after school to help students to the self-printed, self-laminated packets prepared months in advance for his students, Mr. Clarke does not settle to be mediocre.”
Diaz says that Clarke indirectly influenced his career decision, adding that his goal is to work in finance after graduation, although he says he isn’t yet sure if he wants to go the investment banking route or computer science.
“Through my time in his math class, I realized how much I enjoyed the applications of some more complex math,” said Diaz. “Furthermore, getting to know Mr. Clarke resulted in him sharing some of his work in finance in the past and these stories helped me solidify my interest in that field.”
Clarke says the school’s culture is focused on ensuring students are successful. It’s not just his classroom.
“It’s a very nurturing environment,” he said. “I can only take partial credit for the students who got into those schools. A lot of teachers have helped and got them to where they ended up. I’m just part of the puzzle.”