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Long waiting list attests to popularity of school

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Kevin Patton’s twin boys were entering kindergarten, he and his wife, Kathy, wanted to be actively involved in their educations.

Friends recommended Desert Willow Family School for its unique blend of in-class instruction with home-schooling, and the couple knew they had found the perfect fit.

Their twins also loved it, quickly taking to creative approaches like multi-grade classrooms and project-based lessons emphasizing critical thinking. The Pattons were so impressed they eventually enrolled their three younger children at the school.

“I have only good things to say,” Patton said. “It is not for everyone, it takes a lot of work, but I would say most of the families would tell you what an incredible opportunity it is for the kids.”

Desert Willow’s popularity has grown steadily since its launch in 1990 – the waiting list now stands at around 200, and it’s not uncommon for expectant mothers to sign up their unborn children to attend in five years.

With demand high, Albuquerque Public Schools is planning a second family school on the West Side that would enroll 300 students.

The building would be constructed with $8.4 million from APS’s bond and mill levy election, which will be held Tuesday.

Desert Willow, located at Monroe and Comanche NE, is also scheduled for a bond-funded $3 million expansion to add seven classrooms, a lecture hall and playground. The new space would allow enrollment to rise to 340, up from 240.

“It is very exciting,” said Principal Gael Keyes. “We have been talking about this for a long time.”

Keyes is the force behind Desert Willow, growing the school from humble beginnings in the basement of Monte Vista Elementary to its current modernist LEED-certified building, which opened in 2010.

From the start, Keyes’ goal has been simple: inspire a love of learning by giving kids some power over their educations.

For instance, instead of just memorizing multiplication tables, students can come up with a math project that interests them, say calculating the fees on a home sale.

Parents also play a large role, attending a monthly class and providing at least 10—15 hours of instruction each week, which is monitored by a teacher.

In Desert Willow’s early days, the divide between the classroom and home-school was an even split. Keyes eventually added an 80 percent/20 percent option for parents with tighter schedules.

The school’s unique model has drawn a wide variety of students – from kids who need time for acting roles or gymnastics competitions to those with health problems that make full class days challenging.

“Our curriculum has been developed to help students where they are,” Keyes said. “I like to call our curriculum a workhorse. It really does the job.”

She pointed to strong scores on standardized tests, which helped Desert Willow earn an A grade from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Keyes herself is still in the classroom: she teaches fourth- through eighth-graders between her responsibilities as principal.

The double duty keeps her busy but boosts her connection to her employees.

Keyes is in the midst of training a new crew for the West Side location, picking a mix of veteran educators and new graduates.

Asked what makes a family school teacher, Keyes said a passion of life-long learning, which flows down to the students.

Shelly Johnson, a 15-year employee of Desert Willow, agreed. “Everything here is about critical thinking,” she said, after leading her third- through fifth-grade class in a math brainteaser exercise. “It has been thrilling to see a different view of education.”