School flap a learning opportunity

There are a few phrases that, when unleashed on a middle schooler, can trigger an instantaneous boredom-induced eye roll. “Would you like to go to the museum?,” for instance, or, “Do you want to help me in the garden?” Add to the list, “Let’s find some civic engagement opportunities for you!”

But like most things, it’s all in the spin, and while eighth-graders might never admit they appreciate an afternoon spent among Van Gogh’s paintings, the experience stays with them far beyond the complaining. And leaving off the sleep-aid labels of civic engagement and the policy process for the moment, a recent situation with a beloved teacher at Mountain Middle School offered students there an invaluable opportunity for public participation.

Now finishing its second school year, Mountain has had its share of hiccups as a fledgling charter school. Its founders were ambitious – some would say insane – in opening with full sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes in its first year, all before the school’s facility was complete. In so doing, Mountain created among its first-year students a sense of ownership and pioneerism that bonds these kids to one another and their teachers and administrators in a touching and unique way. The community at Mountain, built on a culture of openness, intellectual curiosity, respect, critical thinking and relationship-building, is a welcoming and inclusive one and, on balance, wholly positive.

Within that context, though, there has been no shortage of, shall we say, learning opportunities for the school’s leaders as well as its students. Mistakes have been made, oversights have occurred, wrong decisions have been issued, reactions have been poorly calibrated, but with each setback, the school community has listened, responded and corrected. This is all completely normal for any start-up, and the underlying culture has provided for my family the perspective I needed to remember the long game.

That culture is probably not something that Mountain’s students think about in concrete terms, or at least they did not until last week when it was tested and then affirmed in a deeply moving show of support for a seventh-grade teacher faced with a surprise contract renegotiation.

Nick Philliou, or Mr. Nick to his students, embodies all the best of Mountain’s values and his response to the bind he faced illustrates their strength. Philliou immediately reached out to the Mountain community, presented his case and asked for support at the next day’s board of trustees meeting. It was textbook grassroots organizing, and it worked. That night’s meeting was packed with parents, teachers and students who conveyed, consistently, the message that Philliou and his teaching methods, classroom management and the ethics he holds and conveys are exactly what is right about Mountain. The board listened, the head of school did to, and the decision was reversed.

There are nuances to how this all took place, and Mountain’s structure allowed for the process to unfold in such a way that the board did not step in and make an administrative decision, but instead provided a venue for fact-finding and discussion. Board member Mark Epstein summarized it well: “I think the process is a great example of community engagement, communications, and problem resolution. Decisions were made at the administrative level, as they should be, but then, the board, spending time researching the issue and gathering data, including the parent/student involvement, was able to view the situation from all sides and develop an alternative strategy working with the administration and teachers to satisfy the concerns of all parties involved.”

That this process took place with students present and engaged, voicing their support for both an individual and a value system that they believe in is an unparalleled learning opportunity, as well as an affirmation that their voices and their values matter. While they may not appreciate the terms, these kids, in defending the teacher, demonstrated compelling civic engagement and in so doing, helped Mountain Middle School shore up its policy process.

Which is, indeed, a work in progress. For all its grass-roots effectiveness, the outcry over Philliou’s contract did set a precedent that the school’s board must manage and correct. Those who were incensed by the situation and expressed their displeasure only to see it assuaged in what amounts to real-time, could perceive the board’s message as being, “Mountain Middle School is a direct democracy.” That is not the intended message, but in the wake of the Philliou affair, there are those who have acted as though it was. That will require some recalibration of the process, and tightening of roles, and clear communication of expectations – from the board and the entire school community. All of this happening, and for all challenge contained in the school’s coming-of-age process, there has consistently been great reward. The learning opportunities continue, and none of them is boring.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.

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