Miss cosmic ray: Kathleen Rueda, PEHS Junior won an all-district physics and science award in April.

When she walks through the Proviso East Navy ROTC building, people call Katie Rueda “Cosmic Ray Girl.”

The Proviso East High School (PEHS) junior knows a lot about the cosmic particles flying through the universe. She studied them at a Fermi Lab internship last summer with the QuarkNet physics team. The team is run in part by PEHS teacher Bob Hurley, who, along with aviation physics teacher Edward Beidas, nominated the Forest Park teen to receive the District 209 math and physics award at a ceremony on April 8. The awards were co-sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers and the Society of Women Engineers.

But the awards also honored a special teacher of the student’s choice. Rueda chose her eighth-grade algebra teacher at Forest Park Middle School (FPMS), Jennifer Szablewski.

“Most people don’t appreciate math,” Rueda said. “But she made it easy to learn and made it fun so people could understand.”

“I always loved math,” Rueda said, “but Ms. S. brought it to a whole new level.”

For Szablewski, news of the D209 award came out of the blue.

“I wasn’t sure what was going on. But then I felt really honored,” the District 91 teacher said.

Rueda took algebra back when Szablewski was a rookie teacher, fresh out of DePaul University (B.S.) and the University of Illinois Chicago (M.S.).

“Jennifer came to us well qualified out of college, and was a role model to the kids,” said Principal Karen Bukowski. “She breaks down the stereotype of ‘girls can’t do math.'” Szablewski also runs the teams that compete at the local high school math tournaments at Fenwick, Trinity and Immaculate Conception high schools.

Part of her teaching strategy springs from an “aha!” moment when she herself was a freshman in high school.

“I struggled for the first quarter until one day the teacher tried explaining it in a totally different way,” she said. “Somehow it all clicked into place for me.”

Szablewski knows it’s important to go at the students’ own pace. “When I was in school, it was a lesson a day. Period.” She believes in building confidence so students can master one concept before they build on it. Middle school, she believes, is the place where success in high school math is often determined.

“The students need confidence. If you don’t believe you have a shot [in middle school math], it’s over.”

Twenty-five-year FPMS veteran math teacher Stephen Drent said his colleague is good at spending time with students and approaching math with their interests in mind.

“I congratulate her,” Drent added. “Eighth-graders are difficult to reach sometimes. That’s a tough age and it’s difficult to reach those kids and make an impression on them.”

Even though she excels in science, Katie Rueda has other interests. The fifth child of Forest Park’s David and Mary Rueda, she follows in the footsteps of her four older siblings who all went to high school in the ROTC program. For ROTC, she’s drill team commander and administrative officer. She maintains a 3.714 weighted GPA. She participates in student council and plays clarinet in the marching band. She’s also a member of the African-American Heritage Club and the Girl Talk Club.

She’ll attend a college tour this summer and go to band camp and ROTC leadership camp. She will also do another internship at QuarkNet this summer to study cosmic rays.

She’s grateful “Ms. S.” turned her on to math and “made it seem easy.”

Like signals emanating from a distant corner of the universe, a good teacher’s work can influence students far into the future.

“I’m so glad when [my students] remember me,” said Szablewski. “I can’t believe years later I still had an impact on her.”

“It’s all about finding that spark for this kid or that kid,” Drent said. “She must have really found a spark with Katie that inspired a higher interest in math.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...