It’s not because the pay sucks. I’ve grown wise enough to avoid comparisons (like how many at bats it takes Alex Rodriguez to double my yearly salary), grateful enough to accept an occasional check from my parents and humble enough to dine from the Crock-Pot when the coffers run low. I can hack the salary.
It’s definitely not the kids. Sure, they ramble into class 10 minutes late, pencil-free, uninterested in learning anything that doesn’t pay in the next 15 minutes. They seem, at times, allergic to poetry. Drunk on Red Bull.
Irrationally pissed at their bewildered parents. This time of year especially, with summer break just a few bells away, some of the kids appear hardly aware they’re in your classroom at all. But that’s the beauty of public education: You work with what comes in the door and, the truth is, the vast majority of kids are decent, motivated, responsible people more than willing to meet you halfway if you just flash them a little respect.
And no, I’m not leaving because I feel oppressed by the administration or burnt out by the misguided mandates foisted on us by the federal government. I’m no fan of standardized tests and jargon-filled professional development checklists, but I’ve been blessed to have spent the bulk of my nine-year teaching career at Monte del Sol, a public charter school here in Santa Fe, where decisions are made more or less collaboratively, and teachers are treated with professionalism and respect.
So why am I leaving?
The answer has to do with childhood idealism, dreams of bringing social justice to Santa Fe. It has to do with hundreds of kids and adults who were willing to take a risk on a makeshift school in a shopping center, and then stand up when it seemed certain to fall. And at the heart of my decision to leave Monte del Sol and Santa Fe lies a golden opportunity just missed—a revolution in education that never came to be.
Today, Monte del Sol Charter School occupies a pink, concrete block building on the juniper and sage frontier of a Southside sprawl called Nava Ade. From its outlying portable classrooms, you can hear 16-wheelers downshifting on I-25, watch the Rail Runner slide past. Some 360 kids in grades seven-12 call the school home, and each year another 500 or so vie to get in through the lottery application process. Word around town is it’s a solid secondary school—a bit liberal, perhaps, but with a good arts program, a low teacher-to-student ratio and a highly dedicated staff.
Eight years ago, things were very different. Hardly more than an idea, Monte del Sol Charter School was camped out, refugee style, in the downtown Boys & Girls Club. Teachers carved classrooms out of the gym by lining up vertically folded cafeteria tables. The idea of publicly funded “charter schools” was new to Santa Fe, as was Monte del Sol’s founder, a 6-foot-something man with a booming voice and the decidedly un-New Mexican last name of “Gerlicz.” Tony is the type of guy, as one of my colleagues puts it, who will pound a couple stouts with you after a 10-hour day, then dash off to the school board meeting on his road bike, chatting up a funder on his cell as he pedals. He had led independent schools from Oregon to Chile and was determined to take advantage of New Mexico’s open-ended charter school laws to create a new type of school in Santa Fe, a place where students would call teachers by their first names, every kid would be treated as an individual, and teachers would feel respected and empowered.
Somehow, Tony won over the local school board, roped in some motivated teachers and, in the fall of 2000, started classes for 120 ragtag middle schoolers, whose parents were either so fed up with the larger schools or so dedicated to creating more options in Santa Fe, they were willing to stake their kids’ education on Tony’s dream.
By the time I arrived in the fall of 2001, the school had found more permanent digs in its second home, an empty office space in the Solana Shopping Center on West Alameda. The classrooms were funky, poorly lit inventions in drywall, but you couldn’t beat the location: We were a stone’s throw from the arroyo and Alto Street Park, and a short walking field trip to the Plaza museums and the Roundhouse. And you definitely couldn’t beat the imaginative and hard-working staff. We marched the kids downtown for Plaza scavenger hunts and anti-war demonstrations. We stopped the school for catapult contests, mixed science with English, math with art. You might come in one morning to find the students gathered in the lobby space, gravely discussing the suspension of a classmate; the next morning you’d find your classroom empty of furniture, your students sitting obediently at their tables in the parking lot while the Spanish and bio teachers hid, giggling, behind a parked car.
Not once did it occur to me that our classrooms were too cramped, our textbooks were outdated and our “computer lab”—four PC’s in a hallway—inadequate. We had the arroyo. We had piles of donated lumber, open permission slips for walking field trips. We had the kids, who embraced our chaos with open arms, giving us hell for our mistakes and kudos for our successes. But above all, we had the sense that we were on a mission. We weren’t just opening a school; we were redefining the educational landscape in Santa Fe.
It was, for me, a dream come true. Like many people who become teachers, I’d been a top-notch student. Santa Fe’s public school system served me well, and I’d been fortunate to land in classrooms with inspired teachers. But my Jewish upbringing had made me sensitive to social injustice and susceptible to guilt, and I found myself questioning, by the time I was 13, why a school system that worked so well for me failed so many of my classmates. By senior year of high school, I’d decided I was going to do something about it. I would get my degree and teaching license, return to Santa Fe and change the schools so every student would find success. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what these new schools would look like. But I knew I was going to do it.
The first thing I did when I got to college was weasel my way into a highly popular course taught by professor Ted Sizer, a slow-speaking bear of a man, considered by many to be the senior statesman of public education reform in America. His organization, called the Coalition of Essential Schools, has brought commonsense change into hundreds of schools across the nation. Sizer’s course, called High School in America, required students to work in small groups to design a fictitious high school, from the philosophical principles to the daily schedule. Like nearly every group in that 300-student class, mine was determined to create something never seen before, a school that blurred the line between teacher and student, where learning was a daily adventure that had little to do with classrooms and bells. But in the end, in spite of our heated 3 am dorm-room battles, we defaulted—like nearly every other group in the class—to a traditional Western-style high school, with a traditional Western-style buffet of classes.
I was disheartened. How could I help change the schools in Santa Fe if I couldn’t even come up with something innovative on paper? For the next four or five years, I continued my study of education. I student-taught in Spanish Harlem, researched for the US Department of Education, took jobs as a day camp counselor and teacher’s aid here in Santa Fe. I began considering seeking a job at Santa Fe High School, to get my foot in the door and begin plotting a revolution.
Then Monte del Sol appeared and my dream hit fast forward. Here was a school that built its schedule to fit the learning instead of the other way around. Here was a school that wasn’t afraid to make classrooms out of parks and museums and hallways; a group of teachers who treated their students not as empty containers to be filled with facts, but as thinking people, capable of posing their own questions and seeking their own answers. There was something real happening at Monte del Sol, something I wanted to ride out.
It seemed too good to be true.
It nearly was too good to be true.
It was a simple bookkeeping error, an honest mistake on a single line item. The local school district, which had approved our budget that fall, hadn’t caught it, but the state finally did in February of that year. The Department of Education contacted Tony to inform him he’d been operating on a falsely inflated budget and suggested he start making some serious cuts—trimming out arts programs, for example—because at the rate we were spending, we were going to be broke by March.
The idea of Monte del Sol closing then, when we were just getting going, was at once depressing and infuriating. We began scrambling for solutions, pulling every string we could find, meeting with the local school board and community leaders, anyone who might be able to lend us a hand. The days ticked off, and it became clear we were in need of—I hate to say it—a government bailout. But the man who could arrange it for us—Michael J Davis, New Mexico’s superintendent of public instruction at the time—didn’t have time to meet with us. He was presenting, we learned, to the State Board of Education.
That presentation was to be held at the New Mexico State Land Office, which just happened to be walking distance from the school.
Time for action. We gathered the oldest students, maybe 60 of them, and wrote out an oversized letter on a flip chart. We marched out of school—thank God for those open permission slips—and up Alameda to the auditorium of the State Land Office, where the superintendent was midway through his half-hearted report to the 15 men and women of the board.
The student body of Monte del Sol filed in silently, removing their hats. A kid named Mike McGiffin set up the flip chart letter in the aisle, and we waited. The superintendent didn’t notice us until one of the board members interrupted.
“Seems you’ve got some visitors, Superintendent Davis,” she said.
He turned around. No one spoke.
“Would someone like to read me that letter?”
Mike stood up and did so, then sat back down.
“Where are your teachers?” the superintendent asked.
No one answered.
“I need to talk to someone,” he said.
“We just want a meeting,” Mike said. “Can you do it or not?”
The meeting, which was held that Friday evening, went the only way it could. We packed the house with parents and students, ready to defend Monte del Sol to the death. Davis, who was a dead ringer for Bill Clinton, tried to diffuse the energy by rambling for 20 minutes about all the pressure he was under, how he admired our gumption and so on. When he finally ceded the mic, our parents and students spoke passionately about what we were doing, trying to convince him to commit to a loan, if nothing else. The superintendent was unmoved. The night dragged on. Children began to fall asleep. By the time it was my turn to speak, I could hardly hold back my tears of frustration.
“Look,” I said. “We’re doing our jobs. We’re getting up at 5 am to grade papers and plan lessons and organize field trips. We’re working our butts off trying to reach kids and create a new type of school. Now you do your job and support us.”
The superintendent didn’t like that. His exact words, in fact, were that he wouldn’t stand to be “upbraided by a schoolteacher,” at which point I walked out of the room, leaving it to the cooler heads to prevail.
It’s hard to say if our student/faculty march helped move the process along, but it did help me, and many others, realize just how much we cared about our shopping center experiment. When Tony announced the following week that the local school board and the state were going to help us out, that the school would in fact march on, I felt more invested than ever. I felt we could do anything. It was time to take Monte del Sol to the next level.
If professor Sizer is the John Adams of public education reform, Paquita Hernandez is the Che Guevara. A strong-willed, staunch independentista from Puerto Rico, Paquita is a graduate of one of the first Peace Corps classes and creator of a model of education that just might transform the world. Tony brought her onto the Monte del Sol team in its first year to create the school’s flagship mentorship program, in which students are matched with community mentors for a yearlong exploration of culinary arts, medicine, Tae Kwon Do, bicycle maintenance—whatever the students feel passionate about.
By my second year at Monte del Sol, it was clear to me that Hernandez’ program was the most innovative aspect of Monte del Sol and, more than any of my work in the classroom, had the power to change the lives of students and mentors alike. So when Tony asked for volunteers to begin a study group on how we might make the mentorship program even stronger, I jumped at the chance. Led by Hernandez, a few of us teachers began meeting for coffee during prep periods and red wine on weekends. We studied other models of schools that dared to bust out of the classroom walls, drew up mock budgets and daily schedules, and sketched out a way in which Monte del Sol could revolve—as a community—around mentorship; a way to place the student’s passion at the center of his or her learning.
Unlike the fictional school I’d designed back in college, this school was truly something different. Instead of starting the week off in English or biology class, students went to a small group—10 people at the most—where their “teacher” helped them plan out their weeks. Part of the week would be spent, yes, sitting in a classroom, working on academic skills, but the other part would be spent out in the community, working with mentors or researching a question that was central to their group. What would it take to get to Mars? What is beauty? How can society alleviate poverty? The student who was doing a mentorship in contemporary dance would work on choreographing a piece that expressed exploration or beauty or hunger; the student who was in an architecture mentorship would design a space capsule, a temple or a homeless shelter. At the end of the year, each group—we called them “clans”—would put on a performance or a conference or in some other way share what they’d learned with the other clans in the school.
Sound crazy? No less crazy, one could argue, than forcing large masses of teenagers to sit through seven entirely different disciplines in 50 minute periods for 180 days a year. As Hernandez likes to quote from Einstein, what’s really insane is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Which, despite all the wonderful, hard-working people who have dedicated their lives to public education over the last 200 years, just about sums up public education in the United States. We tinker with the system, add tests, take away tests, try block scheduling, take away block scheduling, and the results? Kids drop out. Those who are most prepared and best supported by their families, like I was, succeed, go on to become teachers and keep the system running.
A bleak outlook, I know. But I’ve come to believe over the past eight years, working in what I consider to be a very fine public school, that all those great moments in public education—and there are many—come in spite of the structure and not because of it. They come because teachers and students reject the idea that they show up each morning simply to spit out or gobble up information: They come each morning to interact, to challenge each other, to engage and learn. Tony, like Sizer, was a master at tweaking the industrial school model so that teachers and students could build positive relationships, despite the dehumanizing effects of standardized tests, mechanical report cards, outdated curricula and bell-schedule discipline. All our little group proposed to do was discard the parts of school that get in the way of learning and replace them with real inquiry and positive interactions with members of the larger community. To us, our “clan model” didn’t feel like a revolution in the least. It was a logical extension of the work we were already doing at Monte del Sol. It never occurred to me it might fail.
I wish I could say a team of military-industrial agents in dark sunglasses swooped in from DC or Texas or wherever those agents are stored, infiltrated our little group, sabotaged us and destroyed our plans. But what really happened is far less exciting, and much harder to swallow. Our plan was presented to our volunteer board. Some parents and faculty expressed that they were, understandably, hesitant to have us experiment on their kids and careers. Better an imperfect system you know than an untried system you don’t. The board had to reject the redesign, and Monte del Sol’s fate was decided: It would not be a revolution. It would be a small, relationship-based school with a strong arts and language curriculum, and a dynamic mentorship program that amounted to, basically, a highly structured extracurricular activity.
Those of us who had pushed the clan model retreated to our classrooms. The school expanded, moved to its relatively luxurious Southside campus and, in many ways, flourished. At our graduation ceremony this May, students from all walks of life spoke eloquently about the relationships they had formed with their teachers and classmates. They felt valued at our school. They felt they had learned valuable skills and changed for the better. Listening to them, I felt privileged to have begun my teaching career in such a creative and caring public school environment. For a classroom-based school, Monte del Sol may, in fact, be as good as it gets.
But a part of me can’t stop wondering if there’s another way. Do we really have to spend so much time in classrooms when we’ve got a world full of settings in which people learn? Must we invest so much energy in mastering academic minutiae when there are endless amounts of valuable, instructive hands-on work that needs to be done? Wonderful though it may be, Monte del Sol is not the place to fully explore those questions.
And so I’m leaving. My wife and I are traveling to Latin America for a while, where I’ll work in a far more traditional private school and reflect on what I have learned.
Because I fully intend to continue my quest for the school different, and I fully intend to help build that school here in Santa Fe. My teenage dream is alive: I still believe public schools can change, and I plan to be a part of it. Like so many schools across the country, Santa Fe’s schools are going to shift, slowly, away from the old model of sit-down-and-listen and toward the newer get-out-and-do-it design.
In today’s world, our schools have to change. Anything else, to paraphrase Mr. Einstein, would be insane. SFR
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