Alan Schmidt has two new jobs that are very different, yet oddly similar. Before the start of the 2013/2014 school year, he became the principal of Sentinel Peak High School. In April, he became the new company commander for his battalion in the Army National Guard. While public education and the Army National Guard are different, in many ways Schmidt has similar roles. It is his job to support and lead those he has been put in charge of.
Sentinel Peak is the alternative high school in the Flowing Wells School District, located in Marana. As principal, Schmidt hopes to carry on the work started by his predecessor, Kimberly Parkinson.
At one time, Sentinel Peak was known as a school where students with discipline problems were placed. But over the past few years, it has evolved. With a new facility and a new focus, the school has become a haven for a variety of students who need a non-traditional educational environment. Schmidt has continued to make the changes begun by Parkinson and he hopes to make it a place where students can get a new lease on life, not a punishment. “I think it is a great goal to focus on the positive and make this place a destination,” said Sally Hankins, a longtime English teacher at the school, who has been able to watch the school’s transition.
The school used to be housed in facility built around a trailer and a converted military barracks. The school is now at a new facility at the corner of Ina and Oldfather roads. That change alone has helped.
“(The Flowing Wells School Board) believed in Sentinel Peak and invested in the new facility,” Schmidt said. “The new facility is the step that put us on the right direction. If you have a phenomenal facility, and we have one of the best in the district, then students will have a confidence and want to be here.”
Schmidt knows that a traditional school environment is not for every student, because he was once like his current students.
“I struggled in high school,” he said. “I was on the verge of dropping out. I was on my own and I struggled. School did not come easy to me. I got into trouble. I have walked that path. I have walked in their shoes. I have seen my parents struggle, and I did not want to struggle. I know the path, and I know how hard it is to break that cycle. I want to help them to break that cycle. “
Schmidt was on his own at 16 and if not for a few caring teachers and other role models, he might have been a high school drop-out himself. Instead he worked to graduate, joined the Marine reserves and went to Pima Community College.
While many just assume the students who wind up at Sentinel Peak are either lazy or bad, he feels that each student has a unique situation that leads them to his school. While his military background means he can be rigid and demanding when needed, his time in the Peace Corps and in education has made him look at the individual.
“I don’t believe there are bad kids,” Schmidt said. “I call it bend but don’t break. Being understanding, but not enabling. Some of these kids are going through challenges that most people would give up on. You allow them to make mistakes, but learn from them and move on.”
While the school still has students who were disciplinary problems, most of the students are there because they could not thrive in the traditional school setting. Most are far behind their peers in terms of credits. Some students are virtually homeless, staying in a different place every few days. Some have health problems or family members with health problems that have kept them out of school for too long and now they have to catch up.
There are also students with social anxiety issues that make the smaller class sizes and self directed learning a much better situation.
His students have noticed Schmidt’s ability to understand them.
“He really believes every kid here can graduate,” said Kurtis Rosera. “He’s not against me, he is with me.”
Schmidt spent nine years in the Marine reserves while also attending Pima College and later the University of Arizona. During that stretch, his unit was sent to Iraq, where he served as a fueler for nine months.
Little did he know, he was preparing for the same duties that he would need as a school principal. Years later, he would continue his support role, but as an officer in the Army National Guard and the similarities were eerie.
“As commanding officer you are like the principal of the school,” Schmidt said. “You are in charge of personnel issues, soldier issues, training. The commanding officer is in charge of what you are training on and making sure the soldiers have everything they need for that training.
“You are in charge of all inventory, all supplies,” he said. “I just completed my change of command inventory. You have to make sure all your equipment is there and all of your soldiers have the equipment they need.”
His next adventure took him to the Peace Corps. He found the organization to be very different in philosophy than the Marines, but the overall mission is similar.
“They are both grass roots diplomacy,” he explained. “Similar missions, with a different approach. The Marine Corps is one side, and the Peace Corps is the exact opposite side. It gives you balance. You learn to be accepting different people’s opinions and that different is not bad. In Peace Corps everything looks different. In the military everything looks the same.”
Schmidt dealt with the local population in both the military and the Peace Corps, but the latter had him more immersed in a foreign culture and he learned a lot, but the biggest lesson he learned is what it was like to be an outsider, something he would carry with him as an educator.
“Here you are this college-educated veteran and you can’t even buy a gallon of milk,” Schmidt said. “You feel stupid, you feel like you can’t do your job. I learned that every situation is different.”
While in the Peace Corps Schmidt served two and a half years in Bulgaria, where he not only got a new perspective on the world, but also met his wife.
After leaving the Peace Corps he realized he wanted to be back in the Army National Guard where he went through Officer Candidacy School. He’s currently a First Lieutenant awaiting Captain Promotable.
“I am waiting federal recognition to be a captain,” he explained.
He’s a quartermaster which means he’s a logistics specialist. He got transferred to Marana, specifically the first battalion of the 285th, where he is stationed out of the Silverbell Armory near the Marana airport.
Schmidt said he wanted to become a principal for the same reason he wanted to be an officer. He wanted to make as a difference, and have as much responsibility as possible.
“As a teacher you have influence over your class, as a principal you have influence over a school,” Schmidt explained. “Helping kids, being a positive mentor in their lives, that is what I need to do. In whatever I do I want to have a big leadership role. That is the responsibility that I want.”
In the end, Schmidt’s quest for responsibility has led him to support students and soldiers alike.