Small School, Big Influence: Amy Biehl High School Tells Its Story

Amy Biehl High School has developed a clear message about its mission and program, allocated resources for communication and outreach efforts, joined a consortium of school with common goals, found help when possible and as needed, and involved everyone schoolwide in spreading the word about its accomplishments and goals. As a result, the school has raised nearly four million dollars for a new school building, has helped changed facilities funding policy for charter schools statewide, and has begun to raise expectations in its community for what high school students can achieve.

In 1999, Tony Monfiletto and a small group of educators eager to act on opportunities presented by New Mexico’s newly enacted charter school legislation founded Amy Biehl High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As 2005 draws to a close, the school has 21 teachers and staff members, 200 students, and is preparing to graduate its third class. It features a college co-enrollment program – to graduate, students must pass two college classes. ABHS has a waiting list of 80 students and has been named a CES Emerging Mentor School. In January 2006, the school is moving into a completely renovated historic building at the center of Albuquerque’s downtown revitalization, the first downtown school in thirty years. ABHS has also become an advocacy leader among New Mexico’s charter schools, weaving lobbying and outreach efforts into its educational mission to create better policy and legislative conditions for the state’s charter schools.

ABHS has raised nearly four million dollars from federal, state and private sources to secure its new home, a 1908 federal post office and government office building. At the same time, the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, a statewide charter school consortium in which ABHS has emerged as a leader, lobbied for and achieved 20 million dollars over five years in lease subsidies for charter school facilities statewide, a key policy change to support and sustain the state’s growing charter school movement.

ABHS balanced the tremendous demands of starting a new school, taking on a major fundraising effort, and modifying legislation by clearly, strategically, and consistently communicating its goals, practices, and needs to legislators and the local community. Monfiletto and other ABHS founders knew that the school’s survival depended on deploying their limited resources toward the goal of understanding, acceptance, and support – financial and otherwise – from New Mexico’s politicians and policymakers and the Albuquerque business and nonprofit communities.

Externally, ABHS secured assistance from outside the school community from political and communications professionals – pro bono and paid – sympathetic to the school’s goals. Internally, ABHS found ways to spread its message within its own school community, empowering its students, staff, board, and community of family and friends to advocate and build relationships on the school’s behalf.

About the School

Co-founded by Tony Monfiletto and Tom Siegel, previously teachers at a large, comprehensive Albuquerque high school, ABHS filed the first charter school application in New Mexico. Monfiletto and Siegel seized the opportunity to create a new small school dedicated to academic success and community service. ABHS educates a diverse population representative of the Albuquerque public schools: 50% Hispanic, 10% Native American, and the remainder white or multiethnic. 20% of its students receive special education services and 40% come from low income households. The school uses an application and lottery system for admissions.

Amy Biehl High School was named for Amy Biehl, a young woman who attended high school in New Mexico and later died tragically while working to end apartheid in South Africa. State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino says, “You have to give credit to Tony [Monfiletto] and Tom [Siegel] when they selected name Amy Biehl. Whenever they retell the story, you watch the students’ eyes get wide. It’s powerful and influential and is in no small measure part of their success that they named the school for someone who was so inspiring.”

Learn more about Amy Biehl’s life and work at

ABHS operates as a year-round school, starting the academic year in July. In addition to requiring concurrent college enrollment, the school expects its students to earn an average of 75% or more to pass a class and requires twice-yearly demonstrations of learning for students to demonstrate what they know and can do. The values and practice of community service are infused into its structure and curriculum, culminating in a service-based senior project.

Getting Professional Help: Working with a Lobbyist

Before embarking on this teaching career, Tony Monfiletto, ABHS’s co-founder, worked in politics and policymaking as a staff member for the state’s Legislative Education Study Committee as a finance and budget work analyst. That experience prepared him for the political realities that the state’s first charter school would face. Monfiletto says, “We knew right away we’d need help. I came in with a high competency but even with that, I couldn’t run the school, raise money, and keep state policy environment favorable. I knew we needed people who are smart, see the big picture, and want to help.”

Nearly immediately, ABHS faced funding and facilities challenges. The school incorporates civic participation into its curriculum, frequently requiring students to work outside of the school building, but was located in a leased building far from many opportunities. Making matters worse, the state funding formula provided no relief, requiring charter schools to pull funds from their operating budgets to lease facilities, draining resources from salaries and programs.

Monfiletto turned to Mike Puelle, a lobbyist who with partner Eric Griego runs Engaging Communication, a political consulting firm. Puelle agreed to lobby on behalf of ABHS and the approximately 40-member New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools. Puelle planned to harness the “logic of collective action” so the charter schools could achieve their common goals. By pooling their resources, they were able to secure Puelle’s lobbying services, establishing a sustained presence at the state legislature to represent their concerns. Puelle notes, “All of the other interests have people there up there all the time. School districts, school boards, teachers – they all have lobbyists.” New Mexico’s charter schools realized that they needed similar representation, and Monfiletto, with his prior policymaking experience, provided key connections between school leaders, necessarily focused on the daily demands of running a school, and the bigger political picture in which they operate.

When Puelle first met with the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools in 2001, his immediate need was to understand the schools’ most pressing concerns. “A professional obsession of mine is priority setting,” says Puelle. “Issues in education, like health care, are large and complex, full of nuances and conflict, and require incremental prioritization. So you have to identify the key issues. You can’t talk about eight things. Legislators are dealing with thousands of things. When we get our little bit of attention, we need to know our key message that we will leave them with.” The matter of lease subsidies emerged as the charter schools’ top priority. After building relationships and solidifying a presence, Puelle and the schools successfully lobbied the legislature to pass the charter school lease program in 2004, and increased the per pupil maximum payment in 2005 to ensure that all funds were being used.

Amy Biehl High School’s New Home

While the larger question of how charter schools would pay for facilities was being resolved, Amy Biehl High School looked for its own suitable, long-term home, eventually setting its sights on an unused but historically significant federally owned building centrally located in downtown Albuquerque. The building’s location allowed students and staff to use public transportation and was ideal for the school’s focus on community service and outreach, with downtown businesses, community services, and arts organizations within easy reach. But the building was in rough shape; not intended for school use, it required asbestos and lead paint removal, system updates, and seismic retrofitting.

While finding funding for such extensive renovation – not to mention the lease payments – was a formidable obstacle, the school elicited two million over three years from legislative appropriations. 22 legislators, half Democrats, half Republicans, and the governor’s office made contributions. State grants and funds from the public school capital outlay council comprise the remainder of the funding. In addition, the newly created charter school lease subsidy program freed up $120,000 a year in operating funds.

The legislative fundraising effort focused on spreading the word about the school’s academic strengths as exemplified by its concurrent college enrollment requirement, a key distinguishing factor that set ABHS apart. “All of our students have to transition to college. No matter how they’ve been labeled, they all do it. While it’s a risky endeavor to set a graduation standard that’s so finite and tangible, it allows us to communicate our vision really well. It trumps any standardized test or compilation of credits. People get it: it’s clear, nonpolitical, equitable and accountable, and it defines success. There may be better standards, but I don’t know of one,” says Monfiletto.

Responses from the school’s internal and external audiences demonstrate that the message is getting through. Former Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent and current ABHS board member Jack Bobroff says that the school is not only changing lives but also minds about what high school can be. “We’ve come to realize that in a charter school, with a smaller setting, it’s possible to do something with students that isn’t going to happen in a larger high school of 2,000. Amy Biehl provides a setting for those kids to find themselves and be involved in something worthwhile. The pupil-teacher ratio is small enough, and there’s a commitment on part of our staff to meet the needs of kids.” Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democratic State Senator, agrees that ABHS’s has shifted public opinion toward expecting more from all high schools. “College co-enrollment has created a new standard for charter schools in New Mexico,” says Ortiz y Pino. “Many have adopted policies of requiring or at least encouraging college. Amy Biehl has influenced charter schools – and public schools – by showing that students are ready for so much more. Yet it’s still not common for students to get more from the public schools.” Charter schools educate 20% of Albuquerque’s students, so their practices may well create higher expectations for high schools and their students throughout the district.

State Senator Ortiz y Pino says, “Amy Biehl High School got legislative funding because their reputation is so excellent and because what they’re doing is so neat. They are both restoring a landmark building and are becoming a real force for the revitalization of downtown Albuquerque.” Ortiz y Pino says that ABHS’s grasp of the political process and persistence made the funding possible. “Tony [Monfiletto] has become well respected by the governor, by the staff of the public education department, and by key decision-makers in the state. For seven years he’s gone to meetings. His advice has been good and his counsel has been wise; people trust him. The nitty-gritty of building policy demands cooperation. You get results not just for the volume of the position but how well thought out it is and how consistent you are in sticking to it.”

Mark Boitano, a Republican state senator from Albuquerque, agrees and notes the value of ABHS’s new location. “In terms of downtown redevelopment, Amy Biehl High School has created a vision of the role of a world-class education downtown. I sell homes for a living. A school like Amy Biehl changes the impression that families will have about the downtown area. Good education influences economic development and growth downtown.”

Tony Monfiletto, CEO and co-founder of Amy Biehl High Schools, offers additional thoughts on the components for ABHS’s capital and civic successes: “The board of Amy Biehl High School has been instrumental to our success. They are a group of tireless community leaders who have given the school much-needed heft with the legislature, city council, and philanthropic community. Most importantly, they have helped by giving me good counsel when dealing with very complicated and politically charged issues. Board development is crucial: schools need experienced and seasoned community leaders from multiple sectors who will roll up their sleeves and lend their credibility to get something great done. We literally would not be at this place at this time with the building and community at large if not for these business, legal, political, and community leaders.”

Emphasis on Communications and Fundraising

Puelle also advised ABHS on its communications strategy. “You have a thousand things to do, but one thing on the top ten has to be getting the good news of your school out to the community.” But, as always in schools, time and capacities are sorely limited. “Most schools understand that it’s important to build relationships and tell their story,” says Tony Monfiletto, “But often it’s the last thing to get done and it’s an add-on. You have to treat it as the way you work. Communicating about why and what you do is an important function of the school that enables you to get work done. We communicate our vision because we needed a building. But no one gives you money for a building. People give money for what the school is about and what it is doing.”

ABHS staff realized that such work was crucial to the school’s future, and hired Lisa McCulloch as Advancement Director in 2003. A close ally to the school – McCulloch’s husband Frank McCulloch is an ABHS humanities teacher – McCulloch focuses on communications and fundraising for the move into the new property. The fundraising task was formidable: though the legislature and governor came through with funding, the school’s capital campaign has raised nearly two million dollars above and beyond the state funding. McCulloch observes, “Tony was wise in realizing that as head of school couldn’t do it all; our resources are in the classroom and we’re really thin administratively. The year before I started, he was pulled away from school every day. Now I can also represent the school at receptions, conferences, wherever we can cultivate relationships. My role is to serve as a voice for the school in the community.” Currently, McCulloch’s salary is funded by foundation grants dedicated to assisting with the expenses of moving the school. As the school finally moves into its new space at the start of 2006, her role will likely evolve into more of an advocacy and fundraising position for the school’s education reform initiatives.

The kind of consistent positive public attention required to raise such significant funds doesn’t just happen on its own, says McCulloch. “People aren’t going to know about what’s happening unless you make a concerted effort to get the word out. We have gotten extraordinary media coverage because of incessant press releases and good relationships. My goal has been to make the cover of every local daily and weekly.” Mike Puelle agrees, suggesting, “Regularly invite legislators and reporters to your school events, but don’t just invite them to preplanned events. Ask them to the school for a special tour. Build relationships. Sooner or later, you’ll strike gold. You want to do this for positive reasons, because you’re doing wonderful things and deserve to share them, but when weirdness does happen, you don’t want that to be the first time your school makes the papers.”

“To make a great dream come true, the first requirement is a great capacity to dream; the second is persistence.” – Cesar Chavez. Posted in Amy Biehl High School math teacher Shalini Shanker’s classroom.

Impact on Students

ABHS’s emphasis on speaking out and community service make advocacy a natural pursuit for its students, and among the causes they have embraced is the secure future of their school, often accompanying McCulloch, Monfiletto, or Puelle on lobbying, public relations, or fundraising efforts. Tina Garcia-Shams, teacher and senior project manager, believes that ABHS students’ ability to speak about their school experience has made a tremendous difference. “Our ability to get into the new building, not just financially but being accepted by the community, has a lot to do with when the kids spoke at a city council meeting. People see that what we’re asking for is not a political ploy but is real life impacting kids, and they are much more willing to listen to what students have to say. They had a big impact on what legislators decided.”

Barbara Bradbury, a sophomore, participated as a lobbyist at the state capital’s Charter School Day, meeting with lawmakers and telling them about ABHS. The political education was real and immediate as she realized the necessity and challenge of staying “on message” in a heated political environment that included a march for gay and lesbian rights. “A few of got involved with the march,” recalls Bradbury. “That wasn’t smart on my part. I was representing my school and that might have been affected the way they looked at us. I began to understand that when trying to pass my bill, I can’t get involved with issues that are really controversial. I learned how to support my ideas without getting involved in separate issues. When I am lobbying for my school, my goal has to be to raise enough money for my building. I can’t just be there to represent my own ideas.”

Garcia-Shams draws the connection between ABHS’s academic requirements and students’ advocacy work. “Twice a year, our kids are required to stand up, present their work, think on their feet, and interact with panel answering questions. Those skills have been necessary and important in the work that they do outside of the school. So many kids think, ‘I’m just a kid. I make no difference.’ When they work for what they believe outside the school, they see that young people can participate and make a difference. That is what creates citizens who understand that they have the responsibility to heard.”