Mount Tallac Continuation School’s mascot is the phoenix, a symbol that separates Tallac from the neighboring Vikings and testifies to the school’s dogma — anyone can rise from the ashes.
For the past decade, the student phoenixes have passed under the wing of Mount Tallac High School’s principal, Susan Baker. And though the longtime educator will end her 23-year career with Lake Tahoe Unified School District this spring, she doesn’t intend to sever ties with the school. It’s always been her passion to help the underdogs, she said.
“All children have a deep desire to be successful. There are so many kids who have been beaten down because their family, society has told them they won’t amount to anything. And that’s just untrue. Each kid can be great,” Baker said Tuesday.
That’s the guiding principle at the alternative education school. Baker helped found Mount Tallac at its present location near South Tahoe High School almost 10 years ago because she’d noticed that not all students could succeed in a traditional high school setting. Teens who worked 40 hours per week to support themselves or their family didn’t have time for a full school day, while many young women who became pregnant dropped out of classes.
Baker started the Young Parents Program in 1999 for teen moms who needed academic support. But she didn’t think the one-day-a-week independent study model was enough, so in 2004 she applied for a $25,000 Education Foundation grant to buy the group’s first portable classroom.
Mount Tallac started with five students. The school now employs three teachers, a counselor, a homeless liaison and a secretary. This June, more than 50 Mount Tallac seniors will don the cap and gown that might have seemed unattainable a year before.
Mount Tallac alumnus Synthia Montoya graduated from the school in 2012. She was on probation and holding down several jobs while attending STHS when she met Baker. The Mount Tallac principal really cares about each one of her students, Montoya said.
“It was good because I needed money, I had my own place to take care of, but I wanted my diploma,” Montoya said of her switch from STHS to Tallac. “(Baker) helped me, she pushed me and she told me I could do things I’d thought I couldn’t do. She took me under her wing.”
According to Montoya, Mount Tallac gives more individual support to each student, no matter their grade level, than a traditional high school. Data from the California Department of Education would seem to support that approach. The Mount Tallac class of 2011-12 school year boasted a graduation rate of almost 87 percent — less than four percentage points lower than STHS’s.
“Most of these kids came from pretty dysfunctional families where education wasn’t a priority. But most of them, given the right model, can be successful,” Baker said. “Once I have them, I don’t let them go. If they’re not individually supported, they give up on themselves.”
Mount Tallac teacher Steve Simmons calls his students “water lilies,” flowers that keep striving toward the sun even though they’re mired in the muck. As Simmons sees it, he’s the students’ cheerleader.
“For all of these kids, there’s no fairy godmother. The only way to level the playing field is with an education,” Simmons said. “These students are my heroes now.”
When the Mount Tallac seniors take to the football field June for commencement, Baker will be there with them. But though she’ll graduate from the Tallac classrooms, Baker anticipates filling her time with volunteer work and her two new grandchildren. The school won’t ever be too distant even after Karen Gillis-Tinlin, the current principal at Bijou Community School, steps in next fall to lead Mount Tallac.
“Being able to redefine who you are, what you want. This is the home of the phoenix. This is your chance to become someone brand-new,” Baker said. “It’s bittersweet (to retire). I think it’s good to leave at the top of your game, but it’s been my passion for so long. I’m going to miss it.”