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Amy Kohlmeier

The legacy of Boise High School, student sit-ins and the family business


Amy Kohlmeier has a bit of coal miners' blood running through her veins; both sides of her family worked the mines in Price, Utah. But her bloodlines also include education. Kohlmeier's grandmother taught first grade to immigrant children living in Utah's coal camps--Greek, Italian, Japanese and Slovenian.

"I took such inspiration from her," Kohlmeier said. "She was completely dedicated."

On Wednesday, Aug. 24, Kohlmeier begins a new school year as principal of Boise High School. Her challenge follows eight years as principal at Fairmount Junior High School and 12 years as a faculty member at several schools.

Your husband, Gary, is also an educator. Is that how you met?

We taught next door to each other.

What brought you to Boise?

Gary and I got our administrative certificates and started putting out feelers. We just fell in love with Boise. Gary became the principal of Saint Mary's School. That was 20 years ago this month.

And where does he work now?

He is the principal of Eagle Elementary School of the Arts, a magnet elementary school.

Education has become a family business.

I have a son who is an English teacher at Mountain View High School, and another son who is going to be a senior at Boise State, so he'll begin student-teaching this year. I also have a daughter who is going to be an engineer. I'm taking her to Wellesley College to begin her freshman year. Additionally, I have two stepchildren, a stepdaughter in Texas and a stepson here in Idaho.

Given that your sons are now teachers, your family dinners must be pretty interesting.

Oh my gosh. We have to be careful not to alienate people.

Boise High is unique in that it draws from an affluent population in Boise's North End but it also includes a number of students who live in the shadows of poverty.

Someone gave me a book that quoted Moses Alexander [Idaho governor from 1915-1919] at the dedication of this school in 1903. He was mayor of Boise at the time. He said something to the effect that Boise High will be a temple of learning for the children of the rich and the poor. How amazing that he said that in 1903, and so much of that holds true right now.

This past school year, we saw a number of Idahoans voice their concerns about wholesale changes to our public education system. Some teachers picketed. Some students walked out of class. But most educators struggled to find an appropriate balance of speaking up without compromising their jobs.

It was a fascinating thing to be in the middle of. I know at Fairmount, when we started to hear rumors of walkouts, I decided to be proactive. The day before the walkout, I explained to the students what civil disobedience truly was, as envisioned by Thoreau. I said, "You express your discontent, but you're willing to take the consequences." I talked about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and I said, "OK, guys. If you're going to do this, you have to understand the consequence. There's going to be a major disciplinary violation." We had a small sit-in group and they took the consequence. I went out and coached them about being quiet, and they were great. Some people might be averse to that and think we should haul them back into class. But in reality, I think the students learned a valuable lesson about making your voice heard and taking the consequences.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the so-called Luna laws.

They create challenges for us. What I'm seeing is that a couple of things are going to collide pretty quickly. Idaho has signed on to what are called "common core of state standards," which, in my preliminary review, is going to change the way all teachers instruct and the way all kids are assessed. I'm just seeing a disconnect between implementing those standards while we're facing requirements of online courses and having fewer teachers. I don't see how those things are going to work in concert with each other.

When school is in session, how early does you day begin and how late can it possibly go?

In a high school, it will be quite early. I will be here at 7 in the morning and sometimes get home at 11 at night. Long, long days.

Is there optimism every September?

Always. The beginning of my year is not in January, it's the first day of school.