Hanna Boys Center’s travails haven’t changed longtime teacher’s zeal
The 50 tally marks tattooed in neat sets of five on Jerry Borchelt's wrist celebrate each year of his long, rewarding teaching career.
He needs to update that particular tattoo.
Last month he began his 51st year in the classroom, the first two spent on an Indian reservation in Nebraska as part of the National Teacher Corps. But since September 1970, Borchelt has taught at Hanna Boys Center, a teen residential treatment facility in Sonoma Valley.
At 73, he's past standard retirement age, and few would have questioned him packing up his math books and scheduling extra time on the golf course. Despite some health issues, Borchelt reasoned the Catholic high school could still benefit from his teaching experience and dedication to troubled boys.
When he responded to a newspaper advertisement and interviewed for the job back when Richard Nixon was in his first term as president and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” made its TV debut, Borchelt was asked how long he thought he might stay.
“As long as I'm having a positive effect on these kids,” he answered. Forty-nine years later, he remains true to his word. “As far as I'm concerned, I still am.”
Borchelt, who holds two master's degrees, hopes he can reach his golden anniversary at the campus. He's still happy working at the fully-accredited Archbishop Hanna High School on the picturesque 170-acre campus north of Sonoma, teaching algebra and geometry and helping change lives for the better.
“I'm kind of an anomaly, I guess,” he said. “I can't think of anything I'd rather do.”
He's aware that skilled, dedicated teachers can motivate students and help turn lives around. “I know I've done that. That's why I keep doing it. It's going to be hard not to do it.”
Long regarded for its success helping at-risk boys overcome childhood adversity, Hanna Boys Center recently has been beleaguered with allegations of sexual abuse scandals that last month brought its former clinical director a 21-year prison term.
The facility, in operation since 1945, also was threatened with state licensing revocation and shutdown, but was granted a reprieve after making physical and operational changes.
Borchelt acknowledges the incidents have impacted the center, but also knows its staff won't stop helping the students, about 80 boys this year.
“It's bad for the center and it's kind of thrown a dark cloud over my career, so to speak,” he said. “But I come here in the morning and this is what makes me happy. It's the kids that matter. To heck with the rest. There are so many good people here. This is a great place, and that's why I come (to work).”
Borchelt focuses on algebraic equations and geometric properties, guiding students in grades eight to 12, many of whom are struggling academically when they arrive at the center.
Class sizes are small, about eight to 10 students, and Borchelt runs a structured program. That doesn't mean the longtime educator is rigid or reserved.
“I have a lot of energy. Sometimes I'm on a table. When I want to point out something, I get on the counter,” he said. “I'm pretty animated. I try. I haven't changed a lot.”
He long ago recognized not to take things personally when every boy doesn't excel in his studies. “You can't exist here like that. You can't beat yourself up when boys don't get it.”
Despite the varied challenges boys are working to overcome, Borchelt said he's rarely encountered discipline problems and his students typically are respectful. “Maybe it's because of my demeanor,” he said. “You have to be cool, you have to be chill.”
He also tries to be fair, he said, “because if they know you're being fair with them, you're over the first hurdle.” Compassion and understanding are equally important. “You have to build really strong relationships with these kids to accomplish anything.”
Love at first sight
He wonders if the multiple tattoos on his arms - 18 in all, some in tribute to teaching, two hearts listing the names of his wife, two daughters and eight grandchildren - might “build kind of a bridge” with the boys.
Borchelt grew up in San Francisco, attended parochial schools and traveled to Hanna Boys Center as a seventh-grader to compete in a baseball game. Impressed by the grounds and warm weather, he told his parents, “I want to go back there and spend my life there.”
Staying in touch
He's now lived in Sonoma so long he considers himself “almost a native.” The center is woven through much of his life. Over the years he's been inspired by countless students and graduates, many who've reached out to share their successes with the staff.
When the center recently held an alumni barbecue, a former resident asked for permission to play his guitar at the event. He'd learned to play from Borchelt during extracurricular music lessons on campus, and noted the experience “gave me something to hang on to.”
Another guitarist who got his start at the center once told Borchelt the facility “was the worst place while [the guitarist] was here. As he grew older he realized it was the best place for him.” The man played in a band and recruited donations at music shops for the center's aspiring guitarists.
One alumnus moved on with hopes of attending Santa Rosa Junior College. With nowhere to live as classes started, Borchelt and his wife, Jean, invited the young man to stay with their family. Several years later, when one of the Borchelts' daughters was attending college in San Francisco and her housing plans fell apart at the last minute, it was the same man, by then married and a new father and working in law enforcement, who repaid the kindness by welcoming the couple's daughter to stay with his family.
Another, an author, included Borchelt in his book dedication page.
“You can go on and on, right? I keep in touch with several of the old guys,” Borchelt said. “It makes me proud to see where they were and how they are now. It's all that kind of stuff. That's why I come back.”
Changing kids' lives
This school year Borchelt has reduced his workload to part-time, primarily due to the health issues that aren't life-threatening but disrupt his “quality of life.”
There's a new block schedule and a team-teaching approach in place this year, changes that leave Borchelt “apprehensive,” but he's pulling through. He knows there are boys relying on his dedication and expertise teaching math - “everyone's favorite subject,” he quipped - and is hopeful there's yet another success story waiting to unfold.
“That's all that matters,” Borchelt said, “when you change a kid's life.”
Towns correspondent Dianne Reber Hart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.