That was the school Tony Gerlicz envisioned when he founded Monte del Sol Charter School in 2000—a place where public education didn’t have to mean rigid hierarchy, tight scheduling or fewer art and music classes.
“There were always kids hanging out in the courtyard, engrossed in conversation or playing basketball,” Lisa Van Sickle, the parent of one graduate and two students at Monte del Sol, says. “They never cared what color anybody’s hair is, and the kids were not walking around in a straight line, in uniform.”
Van Sickle says she’s “thrilled” with the education her oldest son got at Monte del Sol. The school’s approach, which centers on involving students in every aspect of their own education, transformed him from a kid who “fought school as hard as he could,” she says, into one who forged deep connections with teachers and administrators. Even when disciplinary problems arose, Van Sickle says, faculty, students and administrators talked it out together.
“The kids got to see incredible attempts to find common ground—which I think prepares them far better than their ability to do quadratic equations,” Van Sickle says.
But now, as Monte del Sol enters its 10th year later this month, it has become a school in crisis—an identity crisis, to be specific.
Gerlicz’ departure in 2008 coincided with the school’s mounting budget shortfalls and ongoing failure to meet test score standards. In her first year at the school, Gerlicz’ replacement, Angela Ritchie, has tried to address these problems—but her attempt to do so has proven divisive.
While some teachers laud the new energy she brings to the school and appreciate her efforts to balance the budget and beef up traditional academics, others say her top-down management style and dedication to improving test scores jeopardize the school’s original mission.
Faculty, staff and students have divided into sometimes bitterly opposed factions, with Gerlicz and Ritchie representing symbols in the larger and mounting conflict in public education.
That conflict pits the ideals of small schools, alternative learning methods and community buy-in against the inflexible benchmarks of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and its concomitant testing requirements.
Charter schools particularly highlight this division.
“Charter schools [exist] to provide unique programs, different ways of assessing children,” Lisa Grover, the CEO of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, says. “There is an inherent tension between charter schools and the law, [which is] trying to make them very like public schools. A strength of any school, but especially a charter school, is its ability to manage change while still remaining true to the school’s mission.”
Whether Monte del Sol can do so remains uncertain—as does Ritchie’s future following a year of the types of conflict that perhaps no one would have envisioned when the school first sprang into being.