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Tosa schools get high-tech boost

Parent uses expertise to aid curriculum

April 3, 2012

Jerry Merz is to technology education what the most ardent booster is to athletics.

The Wauwatosa School District parent has helped fuel a growth in classes that prepare students for 21st century jobs by advising administrators and providing hands-on inspiration to students.

"I have two sons who have gone through Tosa schools, and one who is still in school," Merz said. "I believe in the technology field and want to help the district develop a strong curriculum, and I want kids to be interested in technology. It's what I have always been interested in, and what I have done professionally."

Technology background

Merz earned a degree in electrical engineering from Marquette University and learned to use handtools from his father, a mechanical engineer. He worked for large, local companies and organizations before starting his own technology information business, MEG Ltd., 12 years ago. With his sons in school at the time, he began volunteering as a Scout leader and soon found himself looking into the district's curriculum.

More than a decade later he has been one of the influencing forces behind developing the new aerospace engineering program, and the STEM curriculum as it expands from elementary to middle school. He also recently coached Wauwatosa West's Rube Goldberg team, which placed third among 22 schools at a recent competition at Waukesha County Techincal College. The team also earned Rookie of the Year honors.

"The students should really take credit for that," Merz humbly noted. "It's about them, not me."

A rough start

The district's technology education development almost wasn't at all about him. Merz said his relationship with the district did not start off well after he went to a PTA meeting to discuss an impending literacy learning change from phonics to whole language.

"I expressed my viewpoint that, why can't you do both because one could be good for one student while the other could be good for another student," Merz said. "I basically was told to sit down and shut up.

"I could have walked away at that time, but a couple of people said I should stay because they knew that I could help in the math curriculum."

Merz said he believes there is room for students to learn math and science they way he learned, by taking the understanding of theory and applying it by solving problems. He said that approach is the heart of the district's new science curriculum.

Various volunteer rewards

Merz devotes 15 to 20 percent of his time to the district. While his role is considered voluntary, he now gets a modest stipend of $5,000 over the course of a year.

"Jerry was putting so much time into helping us that we thought it would make sense that we give him this small stipend," Bill Anderson, supervisor of student learning, said. "Considering his time, what I think it comes out to about 50 cents an hour."

Anderson said effective parental involvement is a blessing for any part of the district's curriculum.

"I think it's extraordinary that Jerry is able and willing to help," he said. "The district is committed to quality technical education. We know that Jerry won't be there forever, so we are trying to get more parents involved. We want others to help extend what we are doing."

Merz said that while he initially helped the district because his own children would benefit, he knows the move to more technology-based programs will help others who follow.

"This is a down economy and my business has been able to get some clients because of the work here," he said. "It's good exposure. But I know that people do things like this for power and money and getting things done.

"Of those three, my own mission is getting things accomplished."

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