Amy Biehl High School (ABHS) was founded in 1999 by two inspired public school teachers, Tony Monfiletto and Tom Siegel. Determined to hold themselves accountable for a student’s success after high school, Tom and Tony decided to start their own charter school, redefining the value of a high school diploma in the process. They named the school after a young woman from Santa Fe who died tragically while working to end apartheid in South Africa. Like its namesake, the school focuses on scholarship and community service, requiring that every student pass two college classes, and complete a year-long community service project that relates to their college studies.
ABHS has become a national model in education reform. In 2004, in recognition of ABHS’s progressive graduation requirements, the school was designated one of twenty ‘Mentor Schools’ in the nation, by the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national education reform organization funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
In 2006, Amy Biehl High School moved downtown into the former post office and courthouse to become the first urban high school in more than thirty years. The school raised $4 million to renovate this historic treasure in partnership with the General Services Administration, the State Historic Preservation Department, Governor Bill Richardson, Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, 24 Legislators, the Public Education Department, the Albuquerque Public School District, and a group of community partners, companies and corporations. In the fall of 2006, Amy Biehl High School won the National Trust for Historic Preservation award for best collaboration with federal and state agencies to save an historic structure.
“There was no reason to start a school unless we
were going to do something risky and dramatic.”
Albuquerque Journal, 2004
On August 25, 1993, Amy Biehl, a 26-year-old Fulbright scholar in South Africa, was driving some friends home outside of Cape Town. A group of young men hurled stones at her car and forced her to stop. They then pulled her out of the car, hit her in the head with a brick, beat her, and stabbed her in the heart. Although this tragic act of violence ended the life of Amy Biehl, it started a legacy of peace and reconciliation that continues to spread.Amy Biehl had a passionate interest in South Africa, sparked by the multiculturalism of her high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and by her studies at Stanford University in California, She was committed to voting rights, to ending apartheid, to empowering women, and to focusing on the needs and dreams of children.
Ironically, Amy Biehl was killed by the people she was working to help. Eight men were arrested and charged in her murder. Three were released when a key witness refused to testify, one was acquitted, and four were convicted of murder and public violence.The story might have ended there--a young life ended by the terrorism that has taken far too many young lives--except for the efforts of Peter and Linda Biehl, Amy's parents. They began the Amy Biehl Foundation to carry on the principles that their daughter championed, and they now spend nearly half of their time in South Africa, overseeing a myriad of projects funded by the foundation that take proactive steps to reduce violence and empower people to become positive forces for change.
In 1997 Linda and Peter Biehl attended the hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would determine whether their daughter's murder could be considered a political act and therefore result in the freeing of her killers. Rather than react with bitterness over the loss of their daughter, they instead made the following statement urging that Amy's beliefs be honored: "We come to South Africa as Amy came: in a spirit of committed friendship. But Amy was always about friendship. About getting along. About the collective strength of caring individuals and their ability to pull together to make a difference.... We cannot, therefore, oppose amnesty if it is granted on the merits. It is for the community of South Africa to forgive its own."
Her parents then quoted lines from a poem by Sandile Dikeni that Amy herself had quoted in an article she had written: "They told their story to the children, they taught their vows to the children that: we shall never do to them what they did to us." As a result of the hearing, the four men were freed; two of them now work at a bakery sponsored by the Amy Biehl Foundation.
As they hoped to do, the Biehls have served as a catalyst to bring people together. Linda Biehl writes, "Amy has been a great teacher to me. I am proud to be Amy's mother. Coping is dealing with what you have been forced to deal with. The more you can come to terms and go forward the better."
New Mexico school adds to the legacy
Another facet was added to the rich legacy of Amy Biehl back in the place where she had attended high school, New Mexico. In 1999, two teachers were planning a charter school that would provide an alternative to the comprehensive high school of 2,000 or more students.
Tony Monfiletto, head teacher:for planning, recalls a brainstorming session as they tried to name their school. "We wanted a young person who would be an inspiration to other young people and who believed in justice," he recounts. One of the teachers remembered hearing about a young woman killed in South Africa, and once they did some research, they knew that they now had a name: Amy Biehl High School.
Opening in the fall of 2000 with 85 ninth graders of Hispanic, Anglo, African American, and Native American heritage chosen by a lottery of applicants, the school now has 150 ninth- and tenth-grade students, with two more grades to be added by 2004. Inspired by their school's namesake, all of the students are involved in service learning projects where they go all over the city taking what they have learned and converting it into action.
Teachers, too, are committed to keeping the spirit of Amy Biehl ...