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Farewell, fair leader

May 22, 2018 GMT

It’s 7:55 a.m. on a Monday morning and Gonzales Community School Principal Mike Lee is raising the Lobos’ red and silver flag on the pole in front of the building. Students still approaching for the start of the school day see the banner and start running toward the front door.

Everyone at Gonzales knows Lee’s rule: Enter the building after the flag reaches the top of the pole and you’re tardy.

Lee also retires the flag at the end of the day. It’s been that way for years. But on Wednesday, he will lower it for the last time. And not just because summer break is coming.

Lee, one of the best liked and most respected educators in the city, is retiring after 27 years working as a teacher and principal for Santa Fe Public Schools — 18 of them as Gonzales’ leader. He also worked as a teacher at the school for seven years prior.

“There’s not a crevice or a closet on this campus that I don’t know,” said Lee, clad in a neon yellow safety vest as he greeted children and parents coming into school. “I now have kids of kids and of grandkids who I taught here years ago.”


Lee seems to be fighting back tears at times as he walks the halls and considers the memories he’s gathered over the years. His daughter, 24-year-old Cassidy Edmonds of Las Cruces, was not as circumspect as she hung out with her father on one of his last days.

“Our family grew up as part of Gonzales,” she said, acknowledging the emotion. “He cares about the 12 acres of Gonzales more than anything in the world.”

She recalls putting together science projects for her own school alongside students from Gonzales who needed mentoring and a sense of familial structure.

“I didn’t just have one brother growing up,” she said, referring to her sibling Michael John Lee of Santa Fe. “I had thousands of other brothers and sisters.”

Principal Lee’s imminent departure is just beginning to sink in with some of the school’s 435 students.

“Why does he have to retire?” a girl in Gabrielle Salazar’s third-grade classroom asked.

Lee’s response? It’s time. He said he’s not tired of education yet, but he doesn’t want to reach that point.

“There’s never a day when I don’t love coming to school,” he said.

A native of Santa Fe, Lee, 51, loved going to school as a child, too, at Salazar and Wood Gormley elementary schools, Capshaw Middle School and Santa Fe High School, where he harbored dreams of becoming a forest ranger.

It’s about the only dream he held at the time that hasn’t yet come true, based on a student essay he wrote for one of his teachers at the time. In that essay, he also said that he planned to marry his high school sweetheart, Jody Thomas, have two children — a boy and a girl — and live and work in the Santa Fe area.

All of that came true.


Lee studied education at both the College of Santa Fe and the University of New Mexico. He said he started thinking about becoming an educator when he worked as a teen coach at the now-defunct Santa Fe Gymnastics.

He was 23 when the district hired him to teach at Gonzales. Annette Senteny, a Gonzales teacher for 25 years, still recalls his teaching style — a mix of follow-the-rulebook and make-it-up-as-you-go. When he taught a course in marine biology, for example, Lee brought a huge aquarium into the classroom so the kids could study the sea creatures up close.

Senteny recalls calling it a “shark tank … because he did have sharks in it.”

Finding a way to make a connection, Lee’s colleagues say, is his special gift. Senteny said Lee takes time to ask every employee how the day is going and whether he or she needs help or support.

Carmella Trujillo, a parent who also serves as a volunteer at the school, said Lee is “really invested in his students. They see him walking the halls. He knows every student by name and participates in their shenanigans.”

Shenanigans, indeed. Lee enjoys sneaking up to an open classroom door and then pouncing inside to shout out, “Good morning!” — startling students and teachers alike. One teacher said he’s prone to engage students and staff alike in water pistol duels in the hallways.

In good weather, he leaves the window to his ground-floor office open so kids getting off the school bus can climb through it to enter school in the morning.

“It’s something fun to do,” Lee said.

It doesn’t stop there: Lee budgets so his school has a newspaper, a certified librarian, a tutoring program for struggling readers, a band and orchestra, plus a chicken and rooster coop in the courtyard.

Staff turnover at the school has remained low, Senteny said, because of Lee’s steady presence. Parent Dave Forester said one reason he and his wife chose to enroll their son at Gonzales years ago is because of Lee’s longevity at the facility.

“We wanted to see a principal and staff that has been in place for a number of years so there’s a continuum of focus and direction,” he said.

Lee, whose successor has not yet been named, said the most challenging aspect of the job is the growing accountability that schools and educators face in trying to keep up with ever-changing state and federal mandates.

“I’ve gone through No Child Left Behind, AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress], Every Student Succeeds Act, PARCC testing and the grading of schools,” he said. “It’s all very different and you have to adapt.”

Gonzales, which has 68 percent of its students on the federal free- and reduced-lunch program — an indicator of poverty — has seen its school grade bounce up and down since the state implemented the A-F school grading system in school year 2011-2012: C, D, D, C, B and now a C.

The Ds, he acknowledged, hurt. “I can’t imagine how our parents and students felt, and it is hard for me to measure how the state sees us and how I see our teachers and students faring,” he said.

He has also seen the world and American society change around him as students adapt to the increasingly fast-paced step of technology, both at home and in the classroom, and as the community struggles to deal with such issues as poverty, hunger, homelessness and other stresses.

Lee said he still dreams of working in the outdoors and he has submitted applications to both the U.S. Forest Service and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish for any position available. He said his background and skill set may make him overqualified for many jobs in those departments, but he can afford to take any position — even at a low salary — just to work in nature.

But Lee said he also wants to take a little time off before taking on a new job. And someday, he said, he would like to return to education as a teacher. For now, though, he has one concern on his mind.

“For 20-some years my car has headed to this school every day and pulled into the parking lot,” he said. “Now I wonder, where is it going to go next?”