Top of the class

By: Gloria Young, Reporter
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Colfax’s Jonathan Schwartz is the 2018 Placer County High School Teacher of the Year.

“I love working at Colfax High School,” said Schwartz, who teaches math, engineering and computer-integrated manufacturing. “I couldn’t have a better place to work than there. And I love making wooden products with students. I can’t imagine anything better to do with my time. It’s an absolute pleasure to work there. It’s funny that I get all these accolades  when all I’m doing is what I love.”

Placer County Superintendent of Schools Gayle Garbolino-Mojica presented the award to Schwartz in his classroom on May 24. It is the most recent of numerous honors and achievements during his 23 years as a teacher in Colfax.

Among those, In 2015, his Career and Technical Education Department at Colfax High won the California School Boards Association Golden Bell Award for innovation. In 2017, he was one of three teachers nationwide to win a Harbor Freight Tools For Schools award totalling $100,000 — $30,000 for him and $70,000 for Colfax High.

Beyond the classroom rook, he created Fraction Contraption, Measurement Toolbox and Trusquare programs for building math skills.

His passion and enthusiasm for teaching have put Colfax High on the receiving in of grants and partnerships from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Sierra College STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Collaborative, among others.

Schwartz grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from U.C. Davis. He has a master’s degree in math education from Harvard University.

He took a break between his studies at Davis and Harvard, embarking on a six-year worldwide adventure as a whitewater kayaking guide in New Zealand, Australia, Zimbabwe, Norway, Switzerland and South America.

After Harvard, when he began applying for teaching jobs, he had one requirement.

“I only applied to school districts on rivers I loved,” he said. “That’s why I applied for Colfax — on the north fork of the American River.”

Initially Schwartz was hired as a math teacher at Colfax. Then 13 years ago, he took over the wood shop.

“I think the best place to learn is in a hands-on setting,” he said. “I loved taking over the shop. I feel shop classes are essential, not only for non-academic kids but hands-on classes are essential for all students. The best way to connect book learning is with actual practice.”

He is quick to share credit for his Teacher of the Year honor    

“The most significant part really of being Placer County Teacher of the Year is the unwavering support from Colfax High, the district office, Sierra College and the CRANE grant,” he said. “The Placer Union High School District school board has always supported career technical education. It is recognition for Colfax High and the district.

Basically, nationally everyone is cutting down funds for any shop programs. Because of the area we live in, shop programs have been very well funded and even expanded. It’s primarily because of a school board that supports career tech education and also for all the additional support of the program such as the CRANE grant, Sierra College and the Harbor Freight grant.”

Schwartz also credits his family.

“My biggest passion is my wonderful wife and three kids,” he said. “And after that it is love of woodworking and making things and being a teacher.”
What’s in store next for the dedicated teacher and his students?

Schwartz is filled with enthusiasm as he discusses his latest project — a mill located in back of the woodshop on the Colfax High campus.

“It was all grant supported and I’ve only had it a few months,” he said.

Former Colfax High student Brian Bixler, who owns Tree Safe in Nevada City, recently delivered a load of logs, which Schwartz and his students will mill into lumber in the coming months.

“I do tree work on the side. I cut down trees during the summer and on weekends — usually residential tree work,” Schwartz said. “I always have students working for me. It really is nice that (Bixler) learned tree work from me and now owns his own really successful tree service. And he is giving back to the school by donating logs to the woodshop program. It is a really nice example of how you can be successful with skills rather than going to college.”

The logs will give students an opportunity to use their creativity.

“I’m really excited to mill these logs with the students and make dining room tables and coffee tables. We’re going to do river inlays down the center of the dining room tables.”

For Colfax High Principal Paul Lundberg, Schwartz is an inspiration.

“He’s amazing. First of all as a principal, I feel blessed to be his colleague,” Lundberg said. “I certainly learn as much from him as I could teach him. My son took him three of the four years that he was at Colfax High. He took every class he could take from Mr. Schwartz and absolutely respected him and loved him. I think one of the of major reasons Jon is so special is he can turn a subject into something very relevant for students. He can apply the knowledge into something that is usable to them. It is just a gift that he has.

“He is a Harvard grad who would never tell you he is Harvard grad. He is the kind of guy who is very humble. He always gives the students and his colleagues the credit. When he won this award, one of the first things out of this mouth was that it is very flattering but very much a reflection of the students, colleagues, school and the CTE program that he works in.

He is one of major reasons why our school is such an attractive place for families and students. He has been able to change so many kids’ lives. So many kids have gone into engineering because of what Jon does.”