JoAnn Groh and Santo Nicotera had been ‘long-distance’ dreaming (JoAnn lived in Tucson and Santo lived in Denver) since December 2000 about starting a school together. Between us we had accumulated more than twenty-five years of experience in public education; we had received awards for outstanding teaching and teacher leadership; we had become national facilitators in a movement to establish professional learning communities in schools across the country; and we had actively participated in comprehensive school reform both locally and nationally. We had seen what was working in these settings (‘best practices’ of individual teachers and schools throughout the country) and we had seen (close-up and first-hand) the many failures of public education. We felt that we were ready to pool together everything we had learned and start a public school of our own.
We dreamed of a school where powerful and transformative teaching and learning were the norm and not the exception; a school where the whole person (body, heart, mind and soul) and the whole community were supported and challenged. We dreamed of a school that would be dedicated to social justice and environmental sustainability; a school where ‘giving-back’ was everyone’s responsibility. We dreamed of a school where diversity among individuals and communities and the unique developmental journey of each would be honored and celebrated. Santo moved to Tucson from Denver in 2002 to join with JoAnn to make their dream of an ‘amazing small school’ a reality. In August 2005 we opened Paulo Freire Freedom School at the University location. In July 2014 we opened the second Paulo Freire Freedom School in downtown Tucson at City High School.
Since 2012, JoAnn and Santo and the founders of City High School (Carrie Brennan, Brett Goble, and Eve Rifkin) in Tucson, Arizona had been discussing a much closer collaboration. The opening of PFFS-Downtown in the City High School building in 2014 marked the beginning of a transformed vision/mission for these three schools. In 2016 Paulo Freire Freedom School, at both the Downtown and University locations, and City High School in downtown Tucson became laboratory/demonstration learning environments within the CITY Center for Collaborative Learning. The vision and mission of CITY Center for Collaborative Learning is to transform public schooling everywhere by providing professional development in best teaching practices to teachers and principals through guided observations of demonstration learning environments, as well as, workshops, trainings, and targeted coaching and consulting.
JoAnn Groh is the co-founder of Paulo Freire Freedom School and the principal on site at PFFS-Downtown. JoAnn taught for 10 years at Catalina Foothills High School as a Social Studies and Language Arts teacher. She received a national award from NEA for her work with her colleagues around professional learning communities. In addition to her experience as a classroom teacher and small school principal, JoAnn has consulted with schools around the country on a variety of educational issues. She worked for 5 years with the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, a large school reform effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and KnowledgeWorks foundations, as a Teaching & Learning and Literacy Coach. She is a national facilitator with the School Reform Initiative which trains facilitators in SRI Critical Friendship. She served as an external coach for several years in Tulsa, Oklahoma with three ‘turnaround’ schools and is currently working with several schools in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a National Faculty member for the Buck Institute of Education, the leading national organization promoting project based instruction.
Santo Nicotera is the co-founder of Paulo Freire Freedom School and was the principal on site at PFFS-University until July 2016. Early in his educational career he taught middle and high school social studies and math, receiving a Denver Teacher of the Year award for his work with inner city students. He co-facilitated reform efforts at Manual High School in Denver, restructuring a large comprehensive school into three small learning communities. In addition to his experience as a classroom teacher and small school principal, Santo has consulted with schools around the country providing a variety of educational support. He worked for 7 years with the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, a large school reform effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and KnowledgeWorks foundations, as a Leadership Coach. He also is a national facilitator with the School Reform Initiative which trains facilitators in SRI Critical Friendship. He worked closely with the leadership team at MC² STEM High School, the exemplar innovation school in Cleveland, Ohio, helping develop their initial curriculum map and instructional practices.