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At Monarch, we strive to create an approach to learning and development that instills perspective, compassion and curiosity in our students. Find out how we work to make education an experience beyond academics to development as thinkers, community leaders & people.

Parent Participation

Parent Participation:

At Monarch Community School, families and staff participate together in the developmentally appropriate educational process, empowering them to be able to enjoy the “whole child” learning approach where academic, social, physical and emotional growth are equally important, interrelated and acknowledged. Monarch is able to offer this alternative program because it is founded on the active and vital role parents play.

Parents are expected to:

  • Attend parent meetings

  • Work in a classroom or on the playground

  • Take on a classroom or community job


In addition, parents may choose to participate in school governance as members or attendees of the Monarch Community Board (our parent-run non-profit that supports the school).

Positive Discipline

Positive Discipline

Why does Monarch embrace the Positive Discipline philosophy? Scroll to read an overview from Principal Michelle to find out why!

Positive Discipline training:

For new Monarch families, staff, and families who would like a refresher, 12 hours of Positive Discipline training is offered by Colleen Murphy, at no cost. All families who are new to our community or who haven’t attended Positive Discipline training in the past, are expected to attend all sessions.

Childcare will be provided and all families new to the community or who have not yet participated in Positive Discipline training will get confirmation of their participation. Visit Positive Discipline Community Resources page for more information and resources.

Why does Monarch embrace the Positive Discipline Philosophy?

Michelle McKinney


A big part of what I do every day involves using two Positive Discipline tools, 1) problem solving and 2) communication, which are the foundation of interpersonal relationships. In the past, it was common for school principals to use punishment. In a school with a Positive Discipline philosophy, punishment has no place. Instead, we use problem solving. This is why I assist with all kinds of problem solving – problems between students, teachers and students, parents and teachers, parents and children, parents and parents, and other combinations!

It is critical for adults to model these tools by:

  • Practicing them with children,

  • Supporting them when they practice with each other and

  • Practicing it with other adults.


When we have a problem with another adult, we go to that person and let them know so that together we find a solution. Is this always easy? No. Sometimes it helps to go to someone neutral first and talk things through. Myself, and the Monarch teachers are available to listen and support parents and students. For problem solving to be successful, it is important for the parties involved to work together. Problem solving can be hard when there is a problem between two parties (or more) and they do not talk to each other. We can support you when you reach out to the other party and want help problem solving. This is true for all the problem solving combinations I mentioned above.

Another useful Positive Discipline tool is “I Messages”. An I Message goes like this: “I feel unsafe when people grab me and I need them to ask me before they touch me.” Naming a feeling can generate empathy; clarity about which behavior or action is of concern; and there’s a request for amends for the individual or community that has been harmed. When even one person in our community is harmed, we all are. So let’s make a plan for healing that community.

In summary, there isn’t always an easy solution to every problem. We all have to decide what is the best way to deal with feelings that come up for us when interacting with others. Confrontation isn’t always the best way and is never the only choice. Often building trust and relationship with the other person is the best place to start. There is no one best way to solve every problem because there are so many different issues and possible combinations of circumstances. But not communicating when you need to will only postpone problem solving.

As your principal, I don’t possess special problem-solving powers but it does put me in a position where I can support others to walk the talk of Positive Discipline and communicate with each other to solve problems when needed. We need to commit to working together toward being the best communicators and problem solvers we can be.

Our children deserve this from us.

Please see some of the resources Colleen Murphy shared with parents during the PD training series. I hope the information can be a support for adults and children alike!

Social Justice

Diversity & Social Justice

Monarch Community School is blessed with diversity including race and ethnicity, gender identification, family structure, cultural background, linguistic range, neuro-diversity, economic status, religious affiliation, resilience, learning modality, etc.

With such diversity comes a responsibility and willingness to learn about the experiences of the people and groups of people with whom we learn and work.

Pictured: Climate Action Walkout / Salida de Acción Climática

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Restorative Justice

All four of the Branciforte Small Schools programs share the same School Connectedness goal: that all staff will continue learning about and enacting Restorative Justice practices; each school will share Restorative Justice principles and practices with parent groups; and students will begin to learn how to serve as Circle Keepers.

Restorative Justice practices empower people to resolve conflicts on their own and in peer mediated small groups to talk, ask questions, share their thoughts and feelings, and work towards making amends when someone has been affected by another’s actions or words. This year the RJ Leadership team will focus on expanding its repertoire of Circle practice. We will continue building community through Restorative Community Circle practice where adults and students will practice speaking from the heart: using language and choosing words that accurately communicate what we hold to be important.

We are learning to listen from the heart: to check our assumptions that might keep us from really hearing what others have to say and believing that what they have to say may be something that is important and helpful. When we listen from the heart we try to set aside any stories we may hold about the person. This opens up the possibility of making wonderful discoveries about, and surprising connections with, each other. You may see Restorative Circles, in addition to class meetings, Buddy Ups, and other community building activities within the classrooms.


Here are some answers to common questions about the Restorative Justice and Trauma-Informed philosophies at Monarch:

“Where can I find more information about the trauma-informed philosophy and the Restorative Circles at Monarch?”

This handy description called “Implementing Restorative Practices” is developed and published by SEEDS, the organization that is providing consultation and coaching services for BSSC and Harbor High School staff.

“How does a Restorative Justice Circle relate to what the students are already doing in school?”

As we learn more about Restorative Justice we are finding that many of its practices are absolutely in alignment with Positive Discipline and Trauma-Informed practices.

For example, class and family meetings routinely start with, or principally consist of, appreciations and compliments. Establishing a culture and climate of kindness, gratitude and compassion supports community members in solving problems TOGETHER, assuming positive intentions from all parties, and finding win-win solutions (read this article for more information about achieving win-win solutions).

Likewise in the Restorative Community Building Circles, community members respond to carefully chosen prompts and questions that are designed to address any variety of community needs including building reliable, constructive, and mutualistic relationships.

The trusting, positive and resilient relationships built during class/family meetings and RJ circles are the recipe for the attachment needs of people whose nervous systems are dysregulated which is, in turn, a tenant of Trauma-Informed practice.

Hands-on Learning

Active hands-on Learning

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 School-wide, inquiry-based Thematic Curriculum


Monthly Field Trips related to Curriculum Theme.

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Multi-age Friday Courses led by students & community members.


Learning Celebrations to showcase student growth.

Curriculum philosophy

At Monarch Community School we believe that for a school to operate effectively, its staff, parents, and students need to have a shared educational philosophy. We believe that learning is a lifelong process, that we are all learners, (students, teachers, and parents alike), and that there are developmental stages of social and academic maturity. People learn best from hands-on experiences both individually and in multi-age groups. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must feel safe and cared for in order to develop to our fullest potential.

At Monarch, we believe that learning happens best when we are all working together, (students, teachers, and parents), to develop a rich learning environment spanning home, school, and the greater community. We are committed to providing a developmentally appropriate learning environment in which students are 'constructing' their own knowledge connected to their real lives and building upon their prior experiences. We believe that students learn best when they are involved and engaged in purposeful learning in which they have:

  • Ownership and responsibility

  • A balance of choice and direction, experience and practice

  • Knowledgeable guides (adults, parents, mentor students)


At Monarch, we nurture a culture of respect, where each individual works toward his or her personal best both academically and socially.

What follows are descriptions of the Guiding Principles and Practices that are rooted in our assumptions about learning and bring our philosophy to life. They are generally broken down into three component areas: 1) Social-Emotional Curriculum, 2) Academic (cognitive) Curriculum, and 3) Shared Governance/Community Relationships.


The social-emotional curriculum is the foundation of our program. It is based on our beliefs about what is important for the social and emotional functioning of the school community. Our first and foremost goal is to create a healthy environment of mutual respect and dignity for both children and adults. This foundation gives the academic curriculum a place to root itself and grow.


With a strong and stable social-emotional curriculum as a foundation, the academic curriculum offers the students the framework to stretch themselves intellectually. Over the years at Monarch students progress from learning skills, to developing and mastering these skills and then applying them. Through experiential learning they broaden and deepen their understanding of themselves and the world around them.



In order for the social emotional and academic components to flourish many different systems and activities must function behind the scenes. We are a small, public school with limited funding. In order to provide the variety of education options and small group instruction we feel is critical to student learning we need a committed parent community who are highly involved in the education of our students and the running of our school. At Monarch it really does take the whole village to raise a child.

Learn more about Monarch's Vision here.

Thematic Curriculum (4 year cycle)

Monarch's thematic curriculum is Science and Social Studies based. We cycle through the thematic units over a period of years, making use of the concept of "spiraling curriculum" in which students study themes in depth (and at the student's appropriate developmental level) at various times as they progress through their tenure at the school. The themes are integrated into the other subjects (math, art, and language arts, e.g.) whenever possible. Attention is paid to the state frameworks when planning curriculum. For a more detailed explanation of themed curriculum, please talk to the teachers.

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Behind the Scenes: How the teaching of a theme unfolds

The classrooms have just begun activating students’ prior knowledge about our new social studies theme Economic Justice by:

  • Presenting the Essential Questions that drive the unit

  • Assessing present levels of the skills that are targeted standards (learning intentions), and

  • Introducing some of the materials and experiences that the students will encounter

Each time a theme is repeated, the staff reviews the planning document (Understanding by Design/Backwards Planning model) to update current events, integrate the interests and funds of knowledge that the current student population contributes to the topics, and to reinvigorate our own understandings of the standards and skills associated with the unit. We also look carefully at how the essential questions and targeted understandings carry overtones of social justice and our on-going journey to anti-racism in our curricular, behavioral and interpersonal objectives and expectations.

The Essential Questions follow; you may notice that the word choice is very broad and ‘kid-friendly’. This is intentional so that the students and their teacher-guides can best match the developmental and academic needs of the individuals and student groupings.

Essential Questions:

1. How do people get what they need and want?

2. What do people do with their money?

3. Why do some people have more money than others?


In teacher Susie’s latest addition to the document Monarch Communication from Teachers 2021-22 (Messages to families), she writes: “We will explore the difference between wants and needs and how people get what they need and want, looking at some of the reasons why some people have more money/resources than others and asking what people do with their money.”

We will also support the students in conducting interviews with grown-ups about their jobs, education, and interests within the monarch Community, and beyond, in order to help them construct deeper understanding about the complex topics of wealth and poverty; resource management; power structures in relation to resources management and distribution; etc.Students will have many opportunities to develop and hone mathematics skills by expanding their understanding and application of place value through the Money units in the respective Math Workshops. Communication Workshop (Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening) supports students in learning how to write Opinion or Argumentative essays (as is developmentally appropriate for the students), in addition to interviewing, summarizing, paraphrasing, citing sources, etc.

As a culminating Learnign Celebration, the students will hold a market simulation, exploring the many processes of creating goods and services. This simulation will touch upon market research, marketing (persuasive writing), planning for a product including collaborative design, materials management, and money management. This simulation will ask students to weigh the benefit and cost ratio of offering products or services and allow students to consider the role of ‘value’ from the viewpoints of individuals, groups, and/or organizations.


Sincerely yours,

Michelle McKinney

Principal, Branciforte Small Schools

Assessing Learning

Assessing Learning

Narrative Progress Reports

Students at Monarch Community School do not receive letter-based (A - F) report cards. Instead, the teachers spend a great deal of time and effort in crafting meaningful and informative narrative evaluations that describe each child’s growth and next steps in both social/emotional and academic areas.

These reports allow us to recognize and celebrate a child’s learning and growth in developing the life skills we wish for them: perseverance, curiosity, confidence, empathy, generosity, community-mindedness, along-side academic literacy, solid number sense, and a commitment to social and environmental justice embedded in the Thematic units.


Exit Criteria

As students prepare to exit Monarch at the end of 5th grade, each takes time to reflect on their own growth and learning. This is achieved through a process preparing for the Exit Criteria Presentation in May, a most significant rite of passage celebrating the culmination of the years at Monarch Community School.

Throughout Exit Criteria preparation process, each student works with a volunteer known as the Classroom Companion (typically a Monarch parent or family member, not their own) and Teacher Assistant to review work samples highlighted in the Portfolio Assessment System, from all years at Monarch. They reflect on how they’ve developed the Habits of Mind and Habits of Heart, and how they’re meeting the Criteria laid out in the Exit Criteria. With the support of the Classroom Companions, students design and practice their presentations to ultimately share with a panel consisting of peers, staff, parents, and community members at their Exit Criteria Presentation in May.


The Exit Criteria itself outlines what we want students to be able to know and do when they leave Monarch Community School. As the staff plans thematic units and map out instruction for Communication and Math Workshops, we intentionally connect the essential questions, choose materials, and plan sequences of learning that can be the content of each student’s meaningful reflection of their understanding of themselves as learners, who are capable students ready for their next educational adventures.


Below are the Exit Criteria that the Classroom Companions support students to demonstrate in their presentations:

General values, essential characteristics & big ideas

  • To be prepared for their next learning environment

  • Will be a problem solver who can find/use resources and apply strategies as needed

  • Be able to be a positive member of the community by displaying leadership skills, being respectful of others, and able to participate in a democratic process

  • Think critically, making use of the Habits of Mind


Habits of Mind:

  • Evidence: How do we know what we know? What’s the evidence? Is it credible?

  • Viewpoint: What viewpoint are we hearing, seeing, reading? Who is the author? Where is she/he standing? What are his/her intentions?

  • Connection: How are things connected to each other? How does “it” fit in? Where have we heard or seen this before?

  • Supposition: What if...? Supposing that...? Can we imagine alternatives – things happening differently?

  • Relevance: What difference does it make? Who cares about it? (From the Central Park East Secondary School’s “5 Essential Habits of Mind”)


Content Areas

Language Arts: Demonstrate critical thinking using the Habits ofMind. Be able to show evidence of communication, collaboration, and creativity.

  • Criteria #1 (Reading) Demonstrate reading capability and be able to communicate what was read

  • Criteria #2 (Writing) Demonstrate ability to write fluently in a variety of genres with appropriate mechanics, organizational skills and a clear voice

  • (Note: Writing is to be demonstrated, in Exit Criteria presentations, only in support of a science criteria or social studies criteria (or both). However, writing may also be used, separately, to address Habits of Heart, Growth over Time, and/or Uniqueness.)


Math: Demonstrate critical thinking using the Habits of Mind. Be able to show evidence of communication, collaboration, and creativity.

  • Criteria #1 Demonstrate the ability to solve problems logically and creatively using the mathematical practice standards (e.g. make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, justify conclusions, communicate conclusions/strategies to others, respond to mathematical arguments of others, be able to solve a problem in more than one way, be able to relate a mathematical idea to everyday life, use appropriate tools, be accurate).

  • (Reference California Common Core)

Science: Demonstrate critical thinking using the Habits of Mind. Be able to show evidence of communication, collaboration, and creativity.

  • Criteria #1 Demonstrate knowledge in depth of one of the science themes, including essential questions, covered during tenure as a student at Monarch

  • Criteria #2 Demonstrate knowledge of scientific process skills (including observe/collect data, come up with a scientific (research) question, develop a hypothesis, predict outcomes, plan and conduct an investigation, interpret results, and communicate results with others)

  • Criteria #3 Demonstrate/explain the significance of a scientific issue as it relates to everyday life

Social Studies: Demonstrate critical thinking using the Habits of Mind. Be able to show evidence of communication, collaboration, and creativity.

  • Criteria #1 Demonstrate knowledge in depth of one of the social studies themes, including essential questions, covered during tenure as a student at Monarch

  • Criteria #2 Demonstrate knowledge of social studies skills (including determine a question, conduct research, evaluate, organize and apply information, discussion/communication, group participation/interaction, conduct interviews, use geographic terms accurately, use/make timelines, express others’ viewpoint, make predictions, make hypotheses, notice patterns, make connections)

  • Criteria #3 Demonstrate/explain the significance of a social issue as it relates to everyday life


Visual and Performing Arts/Self-Expression: (Optional) Demonstrate critical thinking using the Habits of Mind. Be able to show evidence of communication, collaboration, and creativity.

  • Criteria #1 Demonstrate knowledge of the different artistic genres

  • Criteria #2 Demonstrate an understanding of personal growth in the visual and performing arts.


The Classroom Companion and student complete a Planning Guide to help the student develop a coherent narrative of their progression to becoming curious, motivated, persistent, independent, and confident problem solvers.

When the big day arrives, the student is welcomed by a panel of observers and guests made up of the Classroom Companion, Teacher Assistant, Peer Observer, Outside Observer, and family members. The Outside Observer is typically an educator from a different school or organization. We invite parents of younger students (from the Earth, Tierra and Sea classrooms) to serve as Outside Observers so that they can experience this impactful rite of passage that their own child will accomplish in a few short years.


When the student has completed the presentation, observers and guests are invited to offer appreciations and ask questions. One of the Criteria is to be able to answer on-the-spot questions. The family and student then leave to complete a letter and self-evaluation version of the rubric. The observers complete a rubric as a team, and complete evaluations of the process. Finally, the Classroom Companion and student meet once more to share the letters from the family and review the rubrics.


This process continues to evolve over time, and we’ve had to make adjustments in light of the effects of the Pandemic. We are extremely proud of the school community for providing such a personalized and alternative form of assessment, and of course, for the students who take big risks in reflecting, planning, and presenting in this unique rite of passage.

Behind the Scenes: How the exit criteria presentations came to be

Monarch is an alternative school with the absence of a typical grading system. This led Monarch to create its own platform for the reflection of students’ success. (We emphasize the use of ‘reflection’ in lieu of ‘measuring’ success, whereas ‘measuring’ infers a boxed standard of an academically tested student.) The Monarch mission has always reached out to value students as young people who experience growth (and ‘success’) in many areas — academic, social, and emotional. Every student is honored as a successful and accomplished learner when they cross their final ‘rite-of-passage’ called their “Exit Interview” — a 20-minute presentation of their work at this school.


Exit Criteria Presentations are completed when the student is preparing to leave Monarch and transition into middle school. This program was implemented 13 years ago and has morphed into something bigger, more expansive, more soulfully profound than the original vision could have ever anticipated. The collaborative energy of formal principal Lysa Tabachnick and the Monarch staff were the driving visionaries and implementers of this program, which would ideally answer the question of how an alternative school shows that the students have learned anything by being here.

In an interview with Lysa she recounted the initial push, “We should have a clear idea of what we expect kids to be able to know and do when they leave, and that’s how the Exit Criteria were created. ‘How are you going to demonstrate that?’ is how the presentations came about.”


Manifesting a curriculum and structure for the Exit Interview program required many perspectives, open minds, and big value-centered hearts. Mark Gordon was brought in to help guide the process, bringing his years of experience working with Deborah Meier (author of The Power of Their Ideas) and with schools in New York and Oakland, California.

Mark gifted MCS with a language that spelled out the Habits of Mind (carried on from the work of John Dewey and Ted Sizer), which helped the Monarch staff articulate their existing values of honoring each child as a learner (enhancing the curriculum with teaching the ‘how’ and ‘why’ we learn and not just the ‘what’). In the developmental stages of this program, Mark offered this viewpoint: “We are not simply sending kids out into the world because they have passed through their years at Monarch, we are claiming, with evidence, that they are ready for the next step. So, what do we think? What do we really value? What are the things that really count ... that enable (the students) to be successful?”


Monarch staff devoted many hours to face the challenge of bridging the gap between evidence of educational preparedness and the honoring of each student as an individual learner and person. As education professionals, they knew what they were looking for as evidence (hence came the rubric); however, to honor the process and production of being a learner, the student must be intimately involved with the body of this challenging presentation.

The role of the Classroom Companion was developed as well. These volunteers are parents who work with the students beginning in November to build trusting relationships and are supported by a Teacher Advisor. This year’s crew of Classroom Companions have already attended two trainings and are now ready to support the student in finalizing choices of the work samples from the portfolio and other sources that best show the students’ learning and growth over time. The Classroom Companions have quickly become immersed in the details and are committed to supporting the students in this program that is driven by values that honor the heart and minds of every student.

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