Figuring Out Their “Why” at Liberty High

School is revving up again in Benicia.

Young people all over town are saying goodbye to the summertime blues and eagerly looking forward to the first day of class of the new school year. Okay maybe not, but they’re going back anyway, much to the relief of their beleaguered parents.

With this in mind, I called a friend of mine, Kathleen Sauter, who is a Benicia resident and a teacher at Liberty High School here in town. Now, if you asked yourself, “Liberty High—what’s that? Where’s that?” you are likely not alone. I raised a family in Benicia and three of my kids went to Benicia schools, but in doing the research for this article I had to drive downtown and go to the school to remind myself where it is.

It’s tucked away down on East J Street, close to the administrative headquarters of the school district. It is truly a “hidden” resource in a city that the San Francisco Chronicle once ranked as the top place to raise a family in the Bay Area.

Liberty is a “continuation” high school, different from Benicia High, which is a “comprehensive” school.

For the most part, the students at Liberty, between the ages of 16 and 18, transferred over from BHS. But why? Why leave the school on the west side for the one on the east side?

Well, they’re the troublemakers, that’s why. They’re the misbehaving castoffs who’ve been sentenced to serve out the remainder of their high school days at the educational equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys. That’s what some people seem to think, anyhow, and it couldn’t be any further from the truth.

“That’s a big misconception,” says Kathleen, rankling at the idea that the 60 to 80 kids who will attend Liberty this year are troublemakers of one sort or another.

“Our students are not kids with behavior issues. They’re not sent here because of disciplinary problems. Not at all. It’s their choice. They and their families have decided that this is what’s best for them.”

She adds, speaking with a passion that is no doubt shared by the rest of the staff at Liberty, “These kids are remarkable human beings. Every year, I learn something new from them. Many of the kids who come here have experienced some sort of trauma. They were hurt. But they’re able to work through these things and come out really strong. They get seen, they get heard, they get understood, and they blossom. They come into their own.”

I first met Kathleen when we were neighborsI lived on West K Street with my family and she and her parents, John and Pat Spottiswoode, were next door to us on Dominic Court. She was in high school then, on her way to college and finding her path as a teacher. John taught middle school in Pleasant Hill and at a memorial service for him a few years ago at the Benicia Masonic Hall, his former colleagues lauded him as a man with a gift for working with students with unique talents and skills. Now married and with children of her own, his daughter also appears to have an aptitude and interest in developing the talents of young people who are “not cookie cutter kids,” as she puts it.

Her main job at Liberty focuses on those with learning disabilities—hyperactive youngsters, for instance, who can’t sit still in their seats and concentrate on what the teacher is saying.

Other children she provides support for have “processing disorders” or vision and hearing problems. According to a 2022 accountability report prepared by the school for the California Board of Education, more than half the students at Liberty are deemed “socioeconomically disadvantaged” and 19 percent have disabilities. Boys outnumber the girls, but not by much—a margin of 3 to 2. 

What these youngsters have in common is that when they were at Benicia High, they failed or dropped out of classes and fell behind on the number of credits required to graduate. Needing help to get back on track in their studies, they came to Liberty. According to that same report, three of four students do indeed earn their high school diploma and they and their families can be seen celebrating this achievement at the graduation ceremonies held every spring at the Benicia Yacht club and sponsored by the local Rotary Club, a big financial supporter of the school.

Liberty’s success is due in part to its small class sizes and high teacher to student ratio.

Principal Kim Lewis oversees a staff of six teachers, a counselor, psychologist, and others. Its school day typically ends at 1:15 p.m., which is shorter than at Benicia High, although, says Kathleen Sauter, the hours dedicated to instruction are the same at both schools. Liberty is able to do this because there are no passing periods between classes and no long lunch, only a snack break.

Many youngsters, whatever school they go to, will always hanker for the day when there are “no more pencils, no more books, and no more teacher’s dirty looks,” to quote the immortal bard Alice Cooper. Liberty recognizes this by making a big effort to connect students with the larger community, setting them up, if possible, with internships. Here, many local people have stepped up to help. Businesses and organizations such as Fox & Fawn Bakehouse, Benicia Fire Department and Kids K have provided work opportunities for Liberty kids. Ric Small, a local insurance agent, runs a successful mentoring program at Liberty, in which adults connect with students. Arts Benicia supports after school art classes, and gardeners in town show up each week at the school to get their hands dirty with students at the garden on campus.  

Kathleen cited the success story of one struggling Liberty kid who was mired in substance abuse problems and avoiding school like the plague.

That is, until Lindsay Art Glass, the respected glass blowing studio that closed three years ago with the retirement of its founder, David Lindsay, hired him as an intern. “He did a 180,” reports Kathleen enthusiastically. “He totally flipped around. He developed a rapport with the glass blower, learned to blow glass, and found a connection with the community. He figured out his why.”

With the advent of the new school year, let’s hope that all the children at Liberty and every other school in Benicia find a way to connect with the positive things in their lives and figure out their why.  

Feature photo: Kathleen Sauter with Liberty students at The Forestry Challenge event


The award-winning author of more than 20 books and numerous articles for national publications, Kevin Nelson writes the monthly “Hidden Benicia” column for the new online Benicia Magazine.