Richard Wertz ’88 got his start in computers as a high school freshman when he chose a computer science elective at his small high school in Montoursville, Pa. His interest in the subject led him to Princeton’s engineering school, a career in coding and management at Goldman Sachs, and eventually back to a high school computer science classroom in Verona, N.J., where Wertz says that he aims to do for his students “what a far-sighted math teacher did for me.” At Commencement on May 31, he was one of four New Jersey secondary school teachers honored with the University’s annual prize for excellence in education.
Wertz made the transition to teaching 12 years ago, looking for a different balance in his work and family life. (The change, he says, was not as dramatic as expected: At Goldman, 75-hour workweeks were the norm; as a teacher, it’s “only like 65.”) After going back to school for his teaching certificate, he began teaching math and eventually added computer science to his course load, dramatically increasing enrollment in the subject at Verona High School. He gives credit to pop culture for part of that enrollment jump — “nerd-dom has become something that people want to acquire,” he says, and computers are adjacent to that realm — but he’s also actively invited students, visiting algebra classrooms to make a 10-minute pitch for computer science.
With relatively low-cost options for computer hardware and software as well as a growing selection of curricular materials, computer science is coming of age in American high schools, Wertz says. Still, the building blocks would be familiar to generations of Princeton alumni who’ve studied computer science. “Some of the projects I worked on at Princeton are things that I have kids do here,” he says. “The things I worked on as a freshman [my students] are doing as 10th graders. I might have done it in C or Pascal back then, but the kids are doing it in Java now.”
Wertz said he was grateful for the recognition at Commencement and even more grateful for his colleagues, who give students the strong foundation in math that makes high school computer science courses possible.