North Idaho teacher explores space with students

When fifth-grade teacher Chris Naccarato tells his students at the beginning of the school year to reach for the stars, it isn’t wishful thinking – it’s part of the syllabus.

Chris Naccarato
Chris Naccarato

For the past 22 years, Naccarato has transformed his classroom at Priest River Elementary into a combination of NASA’s Mission Control and a space museum, and his students into a top-flight crew.

Naccarato has always had a special affinity for space exploration and remembers thinking that astronauts were heroes as he grew up in Sandpoint watching lunar landings in black and white.

Mix that background with the frustration he felt as a new teacher when he recognized that many students lacked motivation to follow their dreams and they adopted singers and movie stars as role models instead of people who risked their lives for the betterment of mankind.

He started the National Astronaut in the Classroom Association (NACA) his second year of teaching. Since then, he has invited more than two dozen astronauts to his class and at the same time has substantially increased his students’ scores on statewide tests.

“The secret is to make it fun, keep the students engaged and give them responsibility,” he said. “That combination has worked for every class.”

And while individual growth is measured, Naccarato’s students learn the importance of teamwork. The banner in his classroom sums it up: “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

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The 49-year-old teacher began teaching in Priest River in 1992 after graduating from Whitworth University. He earned his M.Ed degree from the University of Idaho in 2001.

Naccarato’s program is truly a labor of love because he receives no district funds for it and doesn’t receive time off to organize or to raise funds. He says he doesn’t keep track of how much extra time goes into NACA mainly because he knows better.

He isn’t shy about asking for help.

He is constantly searching for grants or smaller donations for his annual budget that runs about $12,000 a year. If he runs short of funds, he comes up with the money out of his own pocket and has done so on several occasions.

The largest grant came from the Eisenhower Federal Science organization for $15,000. Other grants have totaled $24,000 through the years. Naccarato’s community fundraising has raised more that $68,000 that comes as a result of hundreds of emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings, he said.

The payoff comes on Astro Day.

As the school year winds down, Naccarato’s class gears up to launch several model rockets and to show community members, politicians and astronaut guests that they have the right stuff.

Last year, Apollo X11 astronaut Richard Gordon and space shuttle astronaut John Phillips, watched the proceedings and even led the Pledge of Allegiance.

The students were decked out in their matching blue space suits — complete with authentic mission patches — and the rockets flew. Mission accomplished.

The students used their unfettered access to the astronauts to gain insight on space travel.

When do you eat? What does weightlessness feel like?

They spent the better part of an hour with their special guests.

When Idaho teacher and mission specialist Barbara Morgan flew in the STS-118 spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2008, Naccarato devoted the semester to following her.

A few years ago, Naccarato invited an Italian astronaut. The class wore green space suits in his honor and serenaded him with several Italian songs. The astronaut was so impressed, he wrote a check to the teacher.

Priest Lake from space
North Idaho’s Priest Lake from space

Each of NASA’s space programs have been represented at Astro Day. The list: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. He has also had Russian cosmonauts and representatives from the European space program.

One astronaut — who had visited Naccarato in 2003 and 2004 — happened to be orbiting the earth in the International Space Station last March and snapped a photo of Priest Lake. The photo ran in local newspapers and acts as a reminder of the connection he and his students have made.

Naccarato has received invitations to four space shuttle launches and several of his students have attended NASA space camps — some of them receiving full scholarships.

The teacher has received the NASA/Idaho Space Grant Consortium Teacher of the Year, a flag from the VFW that flew of the nation’s Capitol building on 9/11 and even had a day in his honor at Priest River.

Naccarato vows to keep NACA running as long as he has the energy to raise the funds and the supply of astronauts keeps coming. With the mothballing of the space shuttle program and cuts by NASA, it is getting more difficult to attract astronauts to a small school in North Idaho.

The energetic teacher promises to keep reaching for the stars…like he always has.