At the conclusion of his year-long fellowship with the U.S. Department of Education, Alta Vista High School social studies teacher Marciano Gutierrez was faced with a difficult choice.
He had just spent a year traveling the country, interviewing teachers and co-authoring reports on the state of education in the country for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He and his colleagues focused on talking to educators about the unrolling of the new national Common Core curriculum standards -- listening to their concerns and relaying that information back to the secretary.
Gutierrez said it was amazing and rewarding to be able to play a part in shaping national education policy. And then he was asked, at the request of Duncan, to stay.
Many would have jumped at the chance, but Gutierrez told the Voice that while he greatly enjoyed working in the Department of Education, the temptation to stay wasn't nearly as great as his compulsion to return. "I liked what I did in D.C., but I love my kids."
Like many teachers, Marciano refers to his students as his "kids," and like many of his colleagues at Alta Vista, helping them get their educations back on track is his top priority.
This level of dedication to his students -- along with his passion for helping kids who end up in continuation schools like Alta Vista -- may have very well been what landed him in Duncan's office in the first place.
Gutierrez was one of only five Washington Fellows to the U.S. Department of Education in 2012. He was selected from 700 applicants based in part upon his personal essay.
Growing up in a poor community in Fresno, Gutierrez counts himself lucky that he got to where he is today. The way he tells it, he had a penchant for standardized tests -- he enjoyed them and thought of them as puzzles -- which helped him test out of his failing neighborhood school.
"Because of those scores, I was able to go to a magnet school an hour away from my neighborhood," he explained. "It was one of the best schools in the area."
While many of his childhood friends struggled and dropped out of school, he thrived. Years later, with one of his old pals in jail and another dead, Gutierrez said he believes it was his education that saved him. So he made a commitment to ensure others growing up in similar situations have the chances so many of his friends did not.
"I could have been in the same boat, but because I had access to a great school with great teachers, my life changed," he said.
Even though Alta Vista is located in the heart of Silicon Valley -- in the middle of an affluent neighborhood -- the kids he teaches often come from homes where they lack the kind of support many of the students at the neighboring Mountain View High School have.
Gutierrez said that the time he spent working for the secretary and interviewing teachers all over the country was inspiring. He saw teachers articulate their concerns and he watched as Duncan grappled with difficult issues, trying to come up with a solution.
"That reminded me of my mission," he said. "My -- teaching students that come from neighborhoods like my own."
The fellowship also energized him in other ways. Gutierrez said it showed him that both at the top, in Duncan's office, and in the trenches at public schools around the country, teachers really do want to do the best they can for their students -- and that they work hard to make sure that they do.
Gutierrez said he plans to continue working with local organizations that have influence over education policy. And while he says he is a bit nervous about returning to the classroom after a year in a different role, the social studies teacher said that like those standardized tests he took as a youth, he is looking forward to the challenge.
"This was a dream come true, to get my hands in education politics, to actually work in the Department of Education," " he said. "But although I enjoyed the opportunity, it doesn't compare to being able to work with my students."