Pinnacle Canyon principal Mark Stuckenschneider surrounded by students at a recent mid-morning basketball game.
While many school teachers use past positive experiences to go into the field, Mark Stuckenschneider, principal of Pinnacle Canyon Academy in Price, came into the profession because of vastly different reasons.
"It wasn't that I had bad teachers," he said. "It's just that I had a very difficult time. In fact, I was almost kicked out of Catholic school. So, I know what a lot of children are going through.
"Not everyone is a straight-A student," he said. So, I have a lot of empathy for those who struggle. There is no such thing as a bad kid, just kids who make bad decisions. It's up to adults to help them make the right ones.
"I wasn't necessarily a trouble-maker," he added, "but I was bored a lot. I needed challenges."
And over the next two decades, challenges would present themselves to the Salt Lake City native. A graduate of Southern Methodist University (located in University neider began his career in special education before moving on to more conventional roles in teaching. He spent time in the Salt Lake system before coming to Pinnacle Canyon almost seven years ago.
"I am very lucky to have found Pinnacle," he said. "What's special about this school is the very diverse level of cirriculum. We have something here for all levels of academic progress - the challenges for the higher end students and the special attention for those who need extra assistance."
PCA is unique in several ways. First, it is a kindergarten through 12th grade venue (quite rare since the demise of the one-room schoolhouse in the nineteenth century), second, because it is a charter school, which means there are little if any geographic restrictions on its student base; and third, elementary pupils are required to abide by a uniform-type dress code. The facility freely floats between public and parochial and has been called a religious school with no theology classes.
Also, because of its relatively small size (about 225 pupils in the elementary level, 250 in the upper grades), no classroom contains over 20 students.
And to show his commitment to the cause, Stuckenschneider's own two children even attend school there.
"We're small, but we're like a family," he said. "We have a broad spectrum of children here, with special needs all of their own. Some, though, have more needs than others."
Praising the instructors and staff, Stuckenschneider said, "Our teachers take on a variety of roles, have a keen insight and are very good at being aware of their pupils' needs. Our staff, from top to bottom, is absolutely amazing. If I'm the so-called 'face' of this school, the staff is the heart and soul of it. They are all in tune - not just with their responsibilities, but with the kids, as well."
And speaking of the children, Stuckenschneider has high praise for them, too, saying, "These students are the only reason I come to work everyday. Children are amazing. They can make you laugh and brighten your day even when you're down. They make all of us come in each day. I believe they will be caring, bright, hard-working adults."
Because of Pinnacle's unusual K-12 structure, the higher level students often mentor the younger ones. "We call this 'service learning,'" Stuckenschneider said. "They will help them read, do math tutoring and just be a big brother or big sister to them. It makes a younger child feel really special when older peer - not necessarily an adult - spends time with them."
Stuckenschneider was also keen to discuss the school's "Community of Caring" concept, five pillars of social awareness, including caring, respect, responsibility, trust and family. It was an idea from Eunice Shriver Kennedy, the wife of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
The original concept for "Community of Caring" was to create a school environment in which children with intellectual disabilities would gain the skills to become strong, independent and joyful, whose decisions would be hopeful, caring, responsible and endowed with a sense of freedom.
It was hoped that young people would be able to make decisions that would enlarge their capacities to contribute to the goodness of their families, schools, communities and nation.
To this end, Pinnacle became a part of the growing community of schools which hold this creedo near and dear.
Another concept particular to this institution is that parents are required to volunteer at least four hours per month. In this way, each mom and dad (or in some case, a grandparent or legal guardian) sort of gives back and helps keep the system clicking on all cylinders. Even Stuckenschneider's wife, Sonja, does puts in her volunteer hours.
"Our parents and family members are teriffic," Stuckenschneider added. "They work hard and are just as interested in seeing this school succeed as myself and the staff are.
"Families really have to commit to their children's education," he added. "There is no free bus transportation here and sometimes that's a huge commitment in time and money for some."
But the fun seems to overwhelm the negative, especially when one discovers that swimming lessons (at the Desert Wave Pool) are given to K-6 students and fifth graders are eligible to earn a trip each year to Washington D.C.
Another aspect of the facility that makes the principal proud is its accentuation of new technology. Each instructor has a laptop and there are Elmo's and Smart Boards (sort of an interactive whiteboard) in every class.
The kindergarteners are even putting on a PowerPoint presentation in the near future. "I am very impressed with our use of technology," he said.
Stuckenschneider hopes, when his tenure is over, people remember his time as a period when character mattered more than grade point average.
"Grades and tests are important, sure," he said. "But it's character that counts in life. It's what kind of person one is, not necessarily what degrees he or she has earned that really makes a difference."