Secretary of education honors FLHS science guru Bruce Leventhal
An early morning call from the boss seldom brings happy news. So imagine how Forest Lake High School science teacher Bruce Leventhal felt Friday when Principal Steve Massey handed him a phone and told him that the man on the other end was the boss of all education for the whole country.
The 21-year FLHS veteran and biology guru’s first instinct was probability: “At first I didn’t believe Dr. Massey, because I just assumed that was ludicrous,” he said.
When Massey assured him that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was waiting, Leventhal, a self-described “even-keeled guy,” was rattled.
For seven or eight minutes, Duncan quizzed Leventhal about his background in science, his application of inquiry education and his beliefs regarding core standards recently adopted at a federal level.
“What was shocking was that he was really probing me,” Leventhal said. “It’s great to be surprised, but I wish I had the composure to think a little more in depth about what he was asking.”
The phone conversation marked National Teacher Appreciation Week and stemmed from a recent visit to the district by three ambassadors from the U.S. Department of Education.
A few weeks before the phone call, Massey took that group and dropped in unannounced in Leventhal’s Advanced Placement biology class. The ambassadors found students weighing plants and uploading data to a collective spreadsheet from their own smartphones as part of a food chain lesson.
“I think in many ways it was a bit of serendipity,” Leventhal said. “We were doing what we do every day, they just happened to have walked in when the kids were really, really engaged.”
The scene left an impact on the guests, one of which advised Duncan to reach out to Leventhal as part of an annual tradition in which the secretary of education calls five instructors during the special week for teachers.
The drop-in surprise would not be Leventhal’s last. Administrators had prior knowledge of Duncan’s plan to call and set the stage with a faux meeting last Friday morning centered around a trip to Costa Rica Leventhal is leading students on next March.
Superintendent Linda Madsen and Director of Curriculum Jennifer Tolzmann listened intently and Communications Director Ross Bennett took copious notes as Leventhal made a presentation about box-cutter ants.
“I thought it was actually newsworthy to do that,” he said with a laugh. “Ross was coming in, and we haven’t done a program like this, so it is truly new. I figured, well, this is great. This is good PR for the program I’m trying to initiate and create a legacy for. I was like the fish chomping at the bait.”
Then the phone rang. Though the rest of the room was in on the gag, they gave Leventhal the privacy of a one-on-one conversation with the country’s top education official.
Adding to the 48-year-old’s array of feelings, he had just come from a teacher appreciation breakfast where a thank-you note from an anonymous student nearly brought him to tears.
“The next thing I know, I’m running over to go to this meeting to talk about Costa Rica and Arne Duncan calls,” Leventhal said. “Without a doubt, I will remember this, and this was a very big deal to me.”
Mad for science
Leventhal is a native of New York City. He grew up in California and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California-Irvine. Upon moving to Minnesota in 1990, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota.
He has field experience studying birds on an Alaskan island as part of an undergrad research program and as a part-time ornithologist on a research vessel. He is also a wildlife photographer and adventure traveler.
But science is his primary passion.
“I happen to love biology,” he said. “I think it’s eminently fascinating. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be thinking about and I think that passion comes out for the kids and so they enjoy my class.”