Some of the students at the Horizonte Center in Salt Lake City have painted a mural in the front entryway. It is magnificent. It shows the faces of teachers, principals, support staff and community leaders who love them.
My friend, Susan McFarland’s picture is there. She gets puddle-eyed to show me. She is so proud to be in that painting because she knows that it is because the student artists who painted the wall know that she loves them. This is the measure of her life’s work. In a world of bubble sheets of multiple-choice best-guesses, this is the hard evidence that she has been successful as an educator.
She is aware that her school has a reputation. Horizonte is the “alternative” school that other schools use to get their students in line. “Shape up or you’ll end up at Horizonte.” It is a threat. But what I saw was anything but threatening. It was nothing but love and hope and dreams coming true. Horizonte is not a place where students go to give up. It is a place where they go to move forward.
I am from Utah, and I always joke that the rest of the world still thinks that diversity in Utah means you found a Presbyterian. To dispel that myth, walk the halls of Horizonte high school. You will experience many accents and many languages and many colors and see students with Muslim headscarves or blue tattoos, and you will see smiles everywhere. I got to eat lunch with some of the students, and I asked Lucas where the smiles came from.
“They care about you here.” He is poised and eloquent. He told me he wants to be in the marines and that he loves to cook. He has brilliant blue eyes and an almost shaved head, and he is kidding around with the Latino students who are also eating at the table. I ask him what he would cook for me, and he smiles and begins to plan the menu – ribs, but the kind without the bones, he thinks.
He tells me that sixteen years ago, his father was on the construction crew pouring the cement of the foundation of Horizonte. He
poured the stairs that we climbed to get to the lunchroom. His father died when he was a year old. He never knew him.
“I like to think he was building this school for me; that he knew that I’d need a place like this where they care about you and everything about you.”
“I don’t like it when people say, ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’,” he tells me, looking straight into my eyes. “Sometimes things don’t make you stronger. Sometimes things make you afraid or make you angry.”
He says to me, “I think whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you you.”
I talk to Demetrio from Guadalajara and all his friends. I shake hands with dozens of students; all of them look into my eyes and smile, so confident and so strong. They all came from different schools in Salt Lake. They were all ready to quit and decided to give Horizonte a try before throwing in the towel. They all stayed. They are all on track to graduate.
I asked them all, “What makes this school different?”
They all said in one way or another, “The other schools are pretty good for some kids, but it wasn’t working for me. I was lost. But they care about you here. They care about who I am, and not just my grades or my test scores, but really who I am. When someone cares about you, you start to care about yourself.”
Later, when I talked to their teachers and asked what made them want to teach at Horizonte; to teach students who were seen as troubled or without direction or without hope, they all said in one way or another, “I wanted to teach where I could make the greatest difference. I wanted to teach that each life had purpose and hope. I wanted to care about a whole human being.”
I visited other schools that, like Horizonte, had received federal School Improvement Grant funds and special help from NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, and that had impressive gains in test scores and impressive plans to improve in impressive ways. Horizonte, also, has impressive plans to build the skills and advance the opportunities of its students.
The teachers were excited about new ways to use technology to give better feedback about how individuals were progressing and how to individualize instruction. But there was something different and unmistakable at Horizonte. There was something more that all the grants and foundations could not put a price tag on.
Horizonte does not nurture a soft and sentimental brand of love for pity’s sake. There is nothing soft and sentimental about the warrior educators of Horizonte. It is a love that demands and expects excellence; sets high expectations of both educator and student; and dares to dream about something better.
I did not cry at the other schools. Horizonte brought tears to my eyes because the student artists put the face of love on the mural near the front doors for everyone to see. The student artists and poets and cooks and future marines I met honored the love that the men and women who knew their names had for each of them. Love is the foundation of every lesson,
every program, every assignment, every strategy, every measure of success.
Yes, there is faith that all children can learn. Yes, there is hope in something better. But the greatest of all is the love that drives the magnificent men and women of Horizonte to demand something magnificent – something worthy – for their heroic students. Horizonte is the lesson for all who understand the power of loving the whole, blessed child.