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PEPPERELL -- In his tour of Varnum Brook Elementary and North Middlesex Regional High School Tuesday, Education Secretary Matt Malone asked every teacher he met what college they attended.

When a fourth consecutive teacher answered with Fitchburg State University, Malone said he should publicly thank the college for providing so many teachers and illustrating one of his main points.

The strong programs and affordability of state colleges make them ideal for Massachusetts students, Malone said repeatedly throughout the tour.

"The diversity of programs and campuses, the price and the rigor," Malone said when asked why state schools are a good choice. "They're putting folks right from college into careers to grow the economy."

He recommended that students interested in science pursue University of Massachusetts Lowell, law students look into University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and aspiring astronauts consider Framingham State University.

When North Middlesex junior Danielle Priest asked Malone why her first choice school, Fitchburg State, did not offer an American Sign Language program, he promised to look into it and get back to her.

"We shouldn't limit kids' choices. We should be growing more programs so more kids want to go there," Malone said.

At the high school, Malone saw a garden where students grow produce for local food banks, as well as a 10th-grade math class working on a new integrated math curriculum.

When Malone asked the class how many were planning on going to college, almost every student raised a hand.

"They're doing it all at this school," Malone said. "This is a comprehensive high school. They're doing a little bit of everything."

At Varnum Brook, Malone stopped to practice counting with kindergartners and to help a third-grade student identify the Nashua River on a map he was drawing.

Varnum Brook Principal Pauline Cormier said Malone's visit to rural Pepperell was exciting for both students and staff.

"Usually they go to urban schools, so this is a welcome surprise," Cormier said.

The North Middlesex Regional School District, Malone said, is preparing its students well to be able to attend college through all grade levels.

"This part of the state has got a pretty strong track record in terms of MCAS scores and getting kids into colleges," he said.

Malone also praised the interdisciplinary nature of both schools' curriculums, citing a program called Envision Math, which uses a hands-on approach to teach students of all backgrounds and achievement levels.

"The world is interdisciplinary," Malone said. "The better job we do of blending content, the students are more engaged, they do better and it's more practical."

Hands-on learning initiatives, he said, help students to succeed both individually and in teams.

"We're encouraging more project based learning. With that map-making project we just saw -- I guarantee you every single one of those kids is going to remember what Massachusetts looks like. And there's soft skills, like teamwork and empathy that are happening too," he said.