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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 07 May 2009

SUFFOLK, Va. (AP) -- Norval Broome wove through the maze of desks in classroom B 214 at King's Fork High School. The test on conic sections was minutes away and most of his two dozen algebra II students were using the review time to enter equations into graphing calculators.

"Who needs a little help?" Broome asked. "I don't mind helping you."

As the teacher answered questions, one girl cracked open a Nora Roberts novel while her math workbook lay on the desk unopened. Two boys chatted, the topic steering far from the problems on the board.

Almost 69, Broome is three years into in his third career -- one he admits is frustrating and harder than he expected.

The good days are when students grasp his lessons, seem interested in math concepts or score well on a test. The bad days? Those are the times he just wishes his students would care.

"I don't know how to motivate them, and that bothers me," he said.

His students don't necessarily agree.

"He thinks everybody is capable of succeeding," said senior Jacqueline Mullins.

For decades, Broome was on the outside looking in -- an engineer who thought teachers had it easy because they get summers off.

He joined the Navy at 18 and, after graduating from Purdue University, worked for the now-defunct U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. While in the AEC's division of naval reactors, Broome helped develop nuclear power plants for Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and the Sturgeon class of submarines.

In 1978, after 20 years in the military, Broome, who has a doctor's degree in electrical engineering, retired and joined Mitre Corp. to work on satellite and submarine communications systems for the Navy.

The NAACP recognized his achievements and so did US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine, which named him "Black Engineer of the Year" in 1987.

Why bother becoming a teacher?

For one, he wanted to keep busy. Teaching allowed Broome to get off the couch and get on with life after his wife of 45 years died of pancreatic cancer.

He had another goal, too. Perhaps he could inspire teens to pursue careers in math and engineering, two fields where American students are losing ground.

"I didn't realize how hard the challenge really was," he said. "If we don't turn things around, we're headed for a national calamity."

Broome is a tall man with gray-and-white speckled hair, a mustache and glasses he keeps perched at the end of his nose as he teaches. He wanders the classroom, rarely taking a seat at his desk.

Today's teens are a different breed from what he remembers of his own high school years. They need jobs to pay for cars, cell phones and designer clothes. They may come from broken homes strained by divorce and the economy. School is often last on a long list of priorities.

Even so, Broome expected he would be able to hold all his students accountable. That his priorities -- finishing homework, participating during lessons and completing in-class assignments -- would be theirs.

Broome has had students who were repeating a course for the second and third time. They seem unprepared for the pace and intensity of the material, he said.

"I get kids in my advanced algebra class that do not have the background in math required for the class that should have been developed in the third, fourth, fifth grades," Broome said.

Hanging on the rear wall of Broome's classroom is a blue sheet of paper for "Math Super Stars." On a recent morning, the poster featured four cut-out stars with students' names written on them.

"I've only had four kids this entire year who have gotten 100 on a test," he said. "Some kids have gotten very close. But you've got to have 100 to be a super star."

Elke Boone was head of the math department at King's Fork High when Broome joined the staff. Over the summer he showed up at the school -- before new teachers were required to report to work -- and requested a textbook and other classroom materials, Boone said.

"He just wanted to make sure he had everything readily accessible," said Boone, now an assistant principal.

Broome set up his classroom with an $800 multimedia projector he hooked up to a laptop computer -- both purchased with his own money. The slide show presentations he shows via the projector give step-by-step instructions to solving math problems the old-fashioned way.

When a couple of students couldn't afford graphing calculators, Broome spent about $600 on five of them so they would have something to use at home. He's known to offer other school supplies as well.

"He gives us the paper and pencil so we have no excuse not to participate," said Mullins, an algebra II student.

Broome shares stories from his life and from the work force, always trying to show how math can be used outside the classroom, Mullins said. Every time she leaves his room, she knows something new.

"He tries to relate to us, use all the hip words," Mullins said. "It's really funny, of course. We have to correct him."

This will be Broome's last year at King's Fork High. Recently remarried to a teacher at another Suffolk school, he is moving to Georgia and has no definite plans to teach. But that doesn't mean you won't find him in a classroom come fall.

"I love teaching these kids," he said. "I love seeing the light bulbs come on."


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