To Everly Fleischer, building the largest educational outreach effort in UCI’s history is a lot like making a molecule.

A research chemist for some 40 years, Fleischer knows it takes the right combination of atoms binding together to make a functional particle. It’s intricate, demanding work – the same kind of skill required to direct UCI’s FOCUS outreach program in math and science.  Like a molecule, FOCUS – short for Faculty Outreach Collaborations Uniting Scientists, Students and Schools – is a synthesis of complex parts, in this case outreach and educational training programs based on an important, underlying concept: Better teachers make better students.

UCI has many successful math and science outreach programs – from the Irvine Math Project to the Science Fair Initiative – that target Southern California schools and touch thousands of students. But these programs are now elements of the much larger FOCUS.

The National Science Foundation granted UCI $14.2 million last year to develop an all-encompassing program that would improve teacher skills and student achievement in math and science, and fundamentally change how universities and public schools work together to solve what many see as a crisis in American education. The effort is tied to President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative to strengthen and reform education.

“We are trying to change and influence 3,000 teachers who instruct 105,000 students,” Fleischer says. “It’s one big challenge, but if it succeeds, these ideas could become a blueprint for similar efforts nationwide.”

Key FOCUS collaborators are three high-need Southern California school districts – Compton, Santa Ana and Newport-Mesa. Along with having longstanding ties to UCI outreach programs, these districts serve students from economically disadvantaged families who, in many cases, do not speak English as a first language. With state budget cuts affecting public schools, these are the children who are, in fact, being left behind.

“The objective is to increase student achievement, but how?” asks Jeff Hruby, co-director of the FOCUS math projects. “The key is providing better instruction. Nothing affects students as much as high-quality teaching.”

Fleischer points out that FOCUS will combine the efforts of dozens of UCI faculty and outreach personnel to attack this issue three ways. One is by bringing together under one umbrella UCI’s already successful outreach programs, such as those in physics, chemistry, engineering and molecular biology. A second effort encourages and supports math and science students at UCI and local community colleges who aspire to become teachers.

But it’s the third element of FOCUS that holds the most promise – and presents the biggest challenge.

It’s called the Teacher Leadership Cadre – TLC – a forward-thinking approach to professional development that requires all teachers to improve their teaching skills and course content. What’s different about TLC is that it puts the schools, and a select group of teachers, in charge of their own professional development activities.

“Usually, teachers attend professional development courses, but there’s no follow-up on what they learn,” Fleischer says. “What we are doing is helping the schools assess their specific needs and supporting their efforts to have professional develop-ment become part of the teachers’ everyday activities.”

At the heart of TLC are two teacher mentors, one for math and one for science, at each participating school. Overall, there are 56 of these TLC pioneers, and they’re already brimming with ideas.

“There’s a need for subject mastery and innovative ways of teaching,” says Lakeyshua Washington, a biology teacher at Compton Centennial High School. “At its core, the content we teach has to be applicable to our students’ lives and more hands-on. Already, the teachers are enthusiastic about receiving new information.”

Overcoming the challenges FOCUS presents is nothing new for Fleischer. Along with his work as a chemistry professor at UCI, he has served as dean of physical sciences in the 1970s, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Colorado during the ’80s, and executive vice chancellor at UC Riverside in the early ’90s. He then returned to UCI as a professor emeritus and was “completely happy” conducting molecular chemistry research.

Then last year, soon after UCI received the grant, two colleagues deeply involved with the effort approached him about the job. “At first, I asked, ‘What is FOCUS?’” Fleischer remembers. “My interest grew as I realized this was an opportunity to set math and science pedagogy on a new path, with a profound and meaningful benefit to society as a whole. This realization made leading the charge an appealing challenge for me.

“Two things I bring to the program are management experience and the ability to work with faculty. My strategy right now is to get good people involved and get their programs going.”

This strategy has worked well for Fleischer, both as a molecule builder and an academic leader. For FOCUS, he knows that by using the proper technique to combine the perfect elements, the final product – like a molecule – can be greater than the sum of its parts.

And like good chemistry, Fleischer and the entire FOCUS team are refining the formula to build a better learning environment.