After almost 40 years in education, Cleve Penberthy, 63, principal at Contract Based Education, is retiring from the West Valley School District.
Penberthy has come full circle in his career – when he started in education, he helped to build an alternative school in Newark, N.J., called Changes, Inc. He had been studying to become a preacher at the time – he was a divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I was preaching a sermon on a rich man getting to heaven is about as likely as a camel going through the eye of a needle,” he said of his decision to make a career change. “I had studied religion at Dartmouth, I was a religion and philosophy major, but I didn’t have a deep faith. There’s this sort of visceral kind of disconnect that said, ‘Cleve, you’ve got to check your whole card here, man. I don’t think you have what it takes to be a minister.’ ”
When he retires after this school year, he’ll be leaving a nontraditional school in Spokane Valley, which draws struggling students from throughout Spokane County, after beginning his career with a similar group of kids in 1971.
“For some reason I’ve historically gravitated to the sort of underdog of the group that doesn’t really necessarily have a politically powerful voice, and I like to give voice to that,” he said.
Over the last four decades, he has worked as a superintendent of schools in Colorado, helped to build a high school in Amherst, N.H., worked as the assistant to the director of the national alternative schools program at the University of Massachusetts, been principal of West Valley High School and principal of CBE, among his many jobs. But he seemed to prefer small environments, getting to know staff and students to help make a positive difference. He said he believes education is an individualized experience and likes to make decisions at the ground level, rather than 30,000 feet in the air.
He came to the district in 1993. One of his proudest moments in the district was helping West Valley High School receive the Gates Achievers grant.
“I was there when this happened and we went about the business of trying to personalize the school and create this tremendous opportunity for kids at that school to get scholarships for 10 years,” he said. He remembers the meeting when he learned about the grants and what it could mean for his students.
“I came out of that (meeting) and I said, ‘If I don’t go for this they should run me out of town. They should fire me,’ ” he said.
In the middle of last year, Penberthy was diagnosed with throat cancer.
“I really got hammered,” he said. “That really took the wind out of my sails, to say the least.” He is cancer free today.
“Maybe I need to continue to focus on my health and sort of clean out the intellectual shelves of my head and see what else is out there.”
Penberthy embraces his work with the students at CBE, but acknowledges the challenges.
“Part of the culture we’re creating is that we’ve got a lot of kids from a lot of really tough places who are wonderful kids, who need to be given a redemptive second or third chance. They need to be supported in a relational way where they can start acknowledging whatever’s special inside of them,” he said.
He said he once suggested the district rename the school the Albert Einstein Academy – his picture hangs in Penberthy’s office – after reading the scientist’s biography.
“Albert Einstein was one of my kids,” he said. “He was homeless, he refused to go to school and he bounced around Munich, Germany, in the late 1890s. As a 16-year-old, he forged his way out of school, got a note from a doctor saying he was going to have a mental breakdown if he stayed in this public school.”
But Einstein found a school that was similar to the nontraditional programs of today, Penberthy said, and went on to become one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
In 40 years, teaching has evolved over the years, presenting new challenges for Penberthy.
“Obviously, there’s a more pervasive and challenging drug culture,” he said. “It’s not just about marijuana anymore. We’re dealing with everything from meth to cocaine to heroin to whatever. Forty years ago, there wasn’t a visible cultural sense of gangs in the school. It was only 12 years ago where we had Columbine. That kind of edgy sense of the schools can be violent places. But I think that put a whole kind of administrative need for order and control and all that, even though paradoxically it doesn’t work. We’ve sort of strayed away from … this human encounter, if you are open and honest (you can) build a culture around people and caring.”
Now that he’s retiring, Penberthy isn’t sure what he is going to do with his time, but he knows he wants to continue to work. He dreams of creating residential transitional housing for kids – there are about 80 to 100 homeless kids attending CBE now – including good role models and teaching the students they can contribute to society in a positive way.
Penberthy, a South Hill resident, will spend time with his wife of 29 years, Brit. He said he had always assumed he would retire when his children, Eli, 28, Hanna, 24, and Mats, 22, were done with school. Mats graduated from the University of Washington this year.
“This has been a fabulous 18 years in Spokane, to say the least, and I’m incredibly honored to be able to do it. I’ve been challenged. It’s frightening to think that after 40 years, today I’m learning some new stuff.”