When I was in fourth grade, a teacher died at my school. That was more than 30 years ago, and I still remember.
He wasn’t even my teacher.
So I can’t imagine the heartache going on at Chandler’s Ken “Chief” Hill Academy, where students learned Monday that the school’s leader, Saunders Montague, died over the weekend from a heart attack. He was just 54 years old.
And while I’d only met Saunders in person a handful of times, he was a figure that just made a lasting impression on me: committed to his students, leading with a tender, but firm hand to guide them back on track, and open arms should they stumble.
Hill Academy is Chandler Unified School District’s campus for students who struggle at their home junior high and high schools, some due to behavioral issues.
When those struggles got severe enough – and perhaps a dropout was in the making - administrators referred the sometimes broken kids to Saunders.
Saunders, the school’s namesake said, was often the student’s last – and best – hope.
Ken “Chief” Hill, a longtime Chandler educator and military veteran, spent the last three years volunteering at the school with his name.
It opened in 2009 with Saunders in the lead. Saunders took part in every step of the school’s creation, from programming to architectural decisions.
Hill said Saunders began working with at-risk students right out of college. Saunders continued that work with Boys Ranch, and eventually, the Chandler district. His workday wasn’t limited to the typical school hours, Chief Hill said. It wasn’t unusual for Saunders to visit with families in the evening and weekends.
“He is able to turn most of them around to where they’re successful and go back to their regular schools. He’s very compassionate, very dedicated to these kids,” Chief told the Tribune Monday. “You get kids who have attendance problems. Saunders goes out to their home and talks to the kids and talks to the parents about school and motivates them to go back to school. I look at the Hill Academy as the last defense a kid has to be successful and achieve his high school diploma.”
It not only took time, but respect to help the students, Chief Hill said. And Saunders demanded it. That turned into success story after success story.
“It’s always very gratifying to see a kid come back and know they are now enrolled in community college or they have a good job or they’re in the military. They attribute all that to Saunders. It’s good to be able to be there and see a kid and his mom show their gratitude and appreciation to Saunders because a kid has turned around completely.”
Though Saunders is gone now, his work lives on in those kids who have a chance for a better life because of one man’s care and dedication.
“His shoes are going to be very hard to fill,” Chief Hill said. “They just are.”
• School Notes are compiled by education reporter Michelle Reese. Read more school news at eastvalleytribune.com/local/education/, and follow us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/eastvalleyednews), Twitter (@EVEdnews), and on Pinterest (pinterest.com/evednews). Contact Reese at (480) 898-6549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.