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Can Monte del Sol’s original vision survive today’s learning environment?

August 4, 2010, 1:00 am

Monte del Sol opened its doors in August 2000—less than a year before Congress passed the Bush-era education reform bill known as No Child Left Behind.

Gerlicz, who held the title of head learner (Monte del Sol’s version of a principal) for the first eight years, says Monte del Sol was founded on the idea of giving Santa Fe students and parents an alternative—but still affordable—education option. Gerlicz, who answered SFR’s questions via email while overseas, says he wanted to create an arts-heavy, community-based educational model that “encouraged students to create, to innovate, to lead and to see their education as a critical tool in improving themselves as well as the communities in which they live.”

Even before the end of its first school year, demand for Monte del Sol had soared, with hundreds of students competing for a few spots in the school’s lottery system.

The new school bounced from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Fe to a space in the Solana Center on W. Alameda before landing in 2003 at its current location, in the Nava Adé housing development near Santa Fe Community College.

Meanwhile, Monte del Sol pursued Gerlicz’ educational vision, boasting, at the height of its arts offerings, eight different options ranging from radio arts to film, spoken word, writing and photography. A unique mentoring program allowed students not only to try out careers that interested them, but also to interact with the greater Santa Fe community.

Gerlicz, whose background before Monte del Sol included leadership roles in two alternative schools and an international one, is unabashedly proud of the school’s success in many ways—graduation rates, student satisfaction, community interaction.

Still, “I wish I could tout the same high levels of achievement for our NCLB scores,” he writes, “but that is another whole level of conversation that is currently being played out at the national level.”

As a charter school, Monte del Sol is subject to the same standardized tests and federal programs public schools are. But, Gerlicz admits, “We never focused on testing.”

At first, the school didn’t have any trouble meeting adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the major test-score benchmark of No Child Left Behind.

But by the time of Gerlicz’ departure, AYP was the one area in which the school just wasn’t succeeding.

Victoria Dean, a rising senior at Monte del Sol, says the school “was so much about creating this safe space for people to really learn” that preparation for standardized testing fell by the wayside.

Designed to measure whether schools are improving, AYP draws from a variety of qualifiers—standardized math and reading scores, graduation rates and test participation.

When schools don’t meet AYP, they are required to implement a series of increasingly drastic changes. Making AYP again can stall the process, but Monte del Sol hasn’t done so in years. As a result, the school is currently in “restructuring”—one of the final disciplinary phases, with recommendations as draconian as firing half of a school’s entire faculty or turning the school over to the state.

Monte del Sol, which currently serves 373 students in grades 7-12 and retains many of its original faculty members, has plenty of company. In the 2009-10 school year, nearly 78 percent of New Mexico’s public schools failed to meet AYP. In Santa Fe, that number was 90 percent.

In part, declining scores are a function of rising standards. One of the oft-criticized aspects of NCLB is the increasing unattainability of its requirements. (As some evidence, the percentage of New Mexico schools failing to achieve AYP has risen steadily in the past five years.)

By 2014, every child at every school in the United States is supposed to have a perfect score on national standardized math and reading tests—a goal Ritchie calls “not realistic.”

Tony Gerlicz, Monte del Sol’s founder, envisioned a school that would encourage students to create, innovate and lead.

Ritchie, who headed public and private schools in Georgia and Alabama before coming to Santa Fe last year, says she disagrees with certain aspects of No Child Left Behind—but says it may have kicked off a necessary discussion about how to improve education.

“We’re in an era of educational change right now,” Ritchie tells SFR. “I think there will be some good that has come out of the school improvement movement, and there will be some things that probably weren’t appropriate.”

But such a statement is at odds with Gerlicz’ philosophy on the “school improvement movement”—an achievement-oriented campaign founded on No Child Left Behind.

“The punitive approach to education reform”—punishing schools for failing to score high enough on standardized tests—“is fundamentally flawed,” Gerlicz writes. “It does not work and will never work.”

It’s not just Gerlicz who thinks this way. With him is a cadre of parents, teachers and students who see Monte del Sol as a response to traditional public education’s manifest failings.

“Were I to do it all over again, I might have focused a bit more on teaching testing skills—but never at the expense of building a strong community,” Gerlicz writes. “Teaching to the test is a Faustian bargain.”

Some fear it’s a bargain that Ritchie is willing to make.
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