The students in Peter Litchka's economics classes create a mock national budget.
But the reward for his creative teaching and simulations is $25,000 in bona fide cash.
The North Carroll High School social studies teacher is one of five teachers and principals in Maryland, 150 in the nation, to win Milken Family Foundation National Education Awards.
The other Maryland winners are George L. Boarman, principal of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County; Kenneth Gill, principal of Elkridge Landing Middle School in Howard County; Faustena "Penny" Vahsen, a teacher at Magothy River Middle School in Anne Arundel County; and Miriam B. Dyer, a teacher at Colonel Richardson High School in Caroline County.
The money is a personal gift, with no strings attached. "I don't know what I'm going to do," Mr. Litchka said when asked how he would spend the money. "I'm going to put it in the bank really quickly."
"I knew he'd say that," said his wife, Isabella, a language arts teacher at North Carroll Middle School. She laughed and added, "I thought I could get some new carpeting."
"I guess the equivalent of this is playing in 2,131 [baseball] games in a row," Mr. Litchka said of his excitement after he and the other winners learned the real reason they were summoned to the state Department of Education offices yesterday.
They had thought they were attending a news conference on a committee that will write statewide goals for what high schools should teach. That's what the gathering was for the first 30 minutes, although most of the other 75 people in the room knew the somewhat dry proceedings were just the build-up.
The winners went from confusion to smiles within moments as Lowell Milken, president of the Los Angeles-based foundation, introduced himself, the award, and then announced their names. The teachers will travel to California in May for a national conference.
The foundation will distribute $3.75 million in awards to 150 educators in 30 states this year -- a fraction of the more than $600 million in fines and civil penalties paid for securities fraud violations by the foundation's co-founder, 1980s junk-bond king Michael R. Milken, brother of Lowell Milken. Michael Milken, who lives in California, served 22 months of a 10-year prison sentence and now is completing thousands of hours of required community service.
Now in its 10th year nationally and third year in Maryland, the awards are always a surprise to winners, who are never told they are under consideration, may not apply themselves, and are selected by each state's department of education.
At yesterday's Baltimore ceremony, Lowell Milken said: "We hope to strengthen education by honoring the tremendous contributions of principals and teachers on the well-being of our children."
Mr. Litchka was Carroll County's nominee for Maryland Teacher of the Year in 1994 and one of the county Chamber of Commerce's Outstanding Teacher Award winners for 1993. He is known as an innovative, dedicated teacher. Both he and his wife are active in projects at the local and state levels.
"I don't think I can remember a morning when I got up and said, 'Geez, I don't want to go to work today,' " Mr. Litchka, 43, said at a county school board meeting last year when he accepted the teacher-of-the-year nomination.
He has had students analyze a series of actual court cases that deal with the relationship between business and government, such as in the breakup of American Telephone and Telegraph Co. In a freshman decision-making class, he had them research an actual case of toxic pollution around the Love Canal in New York. Students worked in groups on their research and reporting and developed recommendations.
Instead of giving a test, Mr. Litchka graded students by observing how much they participated in the groups, how they analyzed and organized their facts, and whether they based their solutions on the research.
One of his most noted efforts was as advocate for the four-period day at North Carroll High. Two other county high schools will also move to such a schedule, after what most say was a great success at North Carroll.
At the school, students take four 90-minute classes a day, instead of seven 45-minute classes. At mid-year, students switch and take four new classes. The schedule allows a student to take eight classes a year instead of seven, lets them meet state requirements and still take electives, advocates have said.
But one of the main reasons Mr. Litchka advocated the change three years ago was that it would give teachers a chance to use class time better and to get to know their students. He said that for students to focus on seven different classes and subject areas every day hinders depth in any one area.
"I don't know how productive we [adults] could be if we had seven different bosses with seven different expections," Mr. Litchka said. "Yet that's what we ask our kids to do.
"We're still on the schedule we sent kids to high school with 50 years ago," Mr. Litchka said when his school was considering the change. "Everything else has changed, yet we're still saying to kids, 'Go to school for seven [periods] a day for 45 minutes each.' "
While considering the idea, Mr. Litchka and teachers from two other Carroll high schools used proceeds from vending machine sales to travel to schools in Colorado and Virginia that had similar schedules. Once Mr. Litchka saw what they had accomplished, he said, not a day went by when he didn't think how much better a lesson would be if he had 90 minutes.
Mr. and Mrs. Litchka applied for teaching jobs in Carroll County from Canastota, N.Y., 16 years ago because they wanted to move farther south. They were hired in 1978, at different schools. He became social studies department chairman at North Carroll in 1982. They live in Hampstead with their children, Annie and Joey.