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Tony Monfiletto: A Charter School in No-Man's Land

In December of last year, I wrote about an unusual charter school I visited, ACE Leadership High, which actively recruits students who have dropped out or are doing poorly in the regular schools. I pointed out that this school faces challenges similar to those of other high poverty schools, given our current accountability paradigm. I have stayed in touch with the principal there, Tony Monfiletto, and today he offers a rare consideration of the challenges -- even obstacles -- high stakes testing places before any educators who focus their work on students living in poverty.

Guest post by Tony Monfiletto.

I was pleased when Anthony Cody asked me to write for this blog. I believe he asked because he respects our work and he is worried that we are vulnerable. I am a co-founder of Architecture Construction and Engineering (ACE) and Health Leadership High schools and we do not have a home on the current school reform landscape--Anthony thinks we are in "no-man's land."

I'm definitely an outsider, but off the grid? My partners and I have avoided aligning ourselves with many of the traditional players in the school reform debate. Our work is fundamental to good schooling but only tangential to the controversy over standardized tests and charter schools. We work for poor disenfranchised students and their families who have been forgotten by the public schools. We also work for employers who have had no real input into determining what it means to be a good citizen or to have the skills and knowledge to be productive in the work place. If serving these two interest groups puts us in "no man's land" then I don't have much hope for improving our schools for the growing number of disengaged young people in our country.

I used to be a legislative staffer and I wrote the budget for public schools. I was a teacher at my high school alma mater which has a 50 percent graduation rate and I have founded three charter schools in my home town. However, I left the state policy apparatus to get my hands dirty inside a school because I wanted to see what really happens in the classroom and how those institutions do, or do not, care for the kids who really need a great education.

That shift from the state capital to the classroom has changed me. I used to be a skeptic who thought about metrics and accountability. How can we make schools prove that the money we spend on them is delivering results? Now, I spend little time thinking about what the state or federal government needs from me and my schools.

We created ACE and Health Leadership High School after asking our constituents what they wanted from their school and they said that they wanted us to help the thousands of young people in Albuquerque who do not graduate from school (our graduation rate is only 65 percent). These young people have dropped out from boredom, been pushed out for low level disciplinary problems, or had life circumstances that undermined their success. The options for them are meager at best. They did not want what the system currently offers--a mechanized on-line credit recovery or GED prep program which does almost nothing to prepare them for a future. So, in a way, the students I serve are in no-man's land, too.

We also asked some of the most enlightened private sector employers in my state what they desired from a school. We learned that they wanted to invest in changing the social conditions that undermine their company's success which is exemplified by our persistent dropout problem. They knew that the changing demographics in our state and country mean that they needed to reach a segment of our community that has been expendable in the past. The truth is that as the baby boomers leave the work force there will be no one there to take their place unless we start to reach the 30-40 percent of young people that we are failing. When we asked them what they really want schools to do, they said that they want employees who can think and are adaptable to a changing economy. They never, and I mean never, asked for a high score on a standardized test. Needless to say, the students never asked for it either.

In his invitation, Anthony pointed out my schools are outside the field of vision of technocrats and policy makers who have bet the farm on high stakes standardized tests and school reformers (charters mostly) who have drunk the Kool-Aid and see the tests as a way to disrupt the overall system. I will add that there are very few people from the education establishment have invited my schools into the fold. They find them threatening to their monopoly status and categorize us with all the CMOs with which they compete. However, I don't think I'm in a "no man's land" or even on a charter school island by myself. My schools are imbedded in the community and they sit at the intersection of hopeful families and employers who are desperate to hire their children regardless of whether they're "accredited" by public or charter schools.

In August, 2013, Health Leadership High School will open following the example of ACE Leadership High School. Ultimately we intend to create four school network of charters that will serve 2,000 students. All will be designed backward from the basic question to employers, families and students, "what job do you need this school to do for you?" We have answered with a few design principles that are common to all of them:

  • The schools will serve young people from ages 14-24 and be open from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm.

  • Students will have legal services for immigrant students seeking Deferred Action and a School-based health center available to their families.

  • Projects will be built around real-life projects developed with industry partners.

  • Positive Youth Development will be in the framework for so that we treat young people as assets to be nurtured rather than problems to be solved.

  • Community engagement will be a pillar of our design so that we have a reciprocal relationship with all of our partners because we know that we cannot do this work without them.

  • Graduates will leave with a diploma that has currency in the marketplace because it was designed with industry as a partner. They will be engaged at every level of development, from planning projects, to training teachers, to evaluating student exhibitions.

Last year ACE Leadership High School received a D on its school report card, which is evidence of our inability to translate our success into the high stakes testing paradigm. Originally we received an F, but then it was revised because of our high special education rate and significant over-age population. Our students do not perform well on standardized tests. However, they excel at working on teams, serving a real-life client, and looking out for one another. Since our last report card, we have begun working with our Department of Education and a few other schools to present a new vision for accountability. Our industry partners are squarely behind this approach and we are betting that we can devise a "Performance Assessment" system that will measure what our students have learned that is aligned with the way that they actually experienced learning in our schools.

However, my good friend Michael Soguero from the Eagle Rock Professional Development Center has warned me that we will be pushed to conform to a standard of "validity" and "reliability" that is acceptable to our state authority. He worries that if we create an assessment tool that is too specialized to our community, it will not be acceptable to the gate keepers of accountability because it is not "standardized." This is an immense challenge because our clients demand that authenticity be the driving objective in our schools and that means that our students must learn in real life context which cannot be standardized.

Some states have moved toward performance assessment that relies upon a common set of student projects that can be evaluated in a common way. Essentially, it is a project-based learning and assessment platform that is delivered across the system. However, this will not work for those of us in no-man's land because our approach must be dynamic if it's going to reach all the students who've been left behind by the system. Our solutions emerge from collaboration between teachers and industry professionals, and it changes as we become more sophisticated and as the industry changes. Those who have failed, or whom the system has failed, need something far more complex if we intend to reach them with learning opportunities that can help them out of a bad situation. They need the kind of learning that would coax you back into school after you have left, not the kind of learning that is pre-packaged.

We are heavily invested in this experiment and the stakes are high for a business community and families who have invested so much in providing the best education for the students who need it the most. We are betting that we can create the room for our work to grow so that we put our full effort into tackling the dropout problem in our community. If we lose that bet, I won't be the only one in "no man's land."

What do you think of Tony Monfiletto's efforts to carve out space for a different kind of school? Is he stuck in no-man's land?

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