As a child, Matt Allio wasn’t much of a student. All he cared about was playing baseball. Most kids in his South San Francisco neighborhood in the late ’60s and early ’70s didn’t go to college, and he had little expectation of doing so himself.
These days, though, he’s a true believer in the transformative power of education. The 53-year-old director of Pasadena’s Walden School is as intensely focused on education as he was on baseball—often working 12-hour days—and it’s this certainty that his students will thrive that keeps him energized. “When I put my head on the pillow at night,” he says, “there’s a remarkable comfort in knowing I’ve worked with a generation of students who truly set out to make the world a better place.”
Walden is a respected independent school with a progressive approach (see “Learning Experiences” on page 12), which educates 210 pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade kids at its San Gabriel Boulevard campus. Allio’s vision for the place is apparent on a recent day as he makes his rounds. He exits his colorful office—filled with books, two finches, a couple of tiny aquatic frogs and some Lego men, model planes and other toys bestowed by small admirers—cruises past the nearly life-size plush dogs that populate the Walden lobby and heads for the playground. “What’s up, Emmett, my man?” he asks a first grader, offering a fist-bump. Emmett wants to play rock-paper-scissors. As they throw down, Matt (as the kids address him) says he meets with Emmett for a few minutes every day to get “a sense of how it’s going in his class.” Allio surveys his brood several times a day, asking kids for advice and offering meetings in which they discuss everything from hot lunch to whether their math work is challenging enough.
“Emmett’s one of the all-time great guys here,” he says. Actually, to Allio, every kid here is an “all-time great,” and they know it. “He finds something to love about every single student,” says Sarah Lougheed-Gill, the admissions director. While some people give lip service to the idea, Allio really means it when he says he sees “a genius in every child.” “We work really hard to find that genius and help it emerge,” he says. That’s particularly compelling, given that Walden admits kids with a range of abilities. Unlike some other independent schools, the school doesn’t counsel those with lower academic performance to go elsewhere.
When Allio was growing up, one of eight kids, in a Catholic, working-class Italian-American family in the Bay Area, his hometown was going through a turbulent time, churning with talk of social revolution. As a small boy with a paper route and passion for the Giants, Allio didn’t join the fray. But he read the paper at 4 every morning before getting on his bike, and he was a keen observer. He saw older kids strung out on drugs, remembers vividly the telecast of RFK’s remarks on the night of MLK’s assassination and recalls “a Vietnam vet who came back and set his house on fire while he was in it.”
Allio slid into the University of San Francisco on a full baseball scholarship. A writing professor tutored him, bolstering his belief that he had “more to offer the world beyond throwing a baseball.” After graduation in 1977, Allio needed work, and a local Catholic school needed a math teacher. So he became a teacher, learning on the job. But when he thought he’d gotten pretty good at teaching, Allio was forced to rethink the whole thing. The “game changer,” he says, was an appointment at Crane Country Day School, a prestigious progressive school in Montecito. “I came home every night, five nights a week, and sobbed,” he recalls, “because it was so hard to aspire to what my colleagues were doing.” Instead of lecturing at the kids and telling them what to do, he was supposed to let them take the initiative. Instead of passing out textbooks, he was supposed to help them learn through experiences, like field trips. He was starting to see that his work with children could “help them realize their place in the world.”
In 1992, Allio was selected for the Klingenstein Fellowship at Columbia University, where he worked toward an M.A. in education. The fellowship trains promising teachers to become leaders at independent schools. At Columbia, studying the work of John Dewey and other education reformers, Allio sharpened his educational vision. He saw that academic content—knowledge—is important, but it’s just the point of departure. “Young people have to use that knowledge to act, put it into action,” he explains. Finally, they have to be able to inspire others to act too. “The real power in transformation is to have the skills to organize others.”
That’s what Allio has done at Walden for the past seven years. He takes in a multitude of ideas—from students, teachers, parents—processes them and leads from there. “He’s a steady hand on the helm,” says board member Mary Fauvre. “He’s organized, thorough.” Allio is also known for respecting and investing in faculty. For example, Walden pays for all teachers to attend a training program at Columbia. “He wants to make the mission alive and vibrant,” adds Fauvre, “and not do things just because that’s the way we always did it.”
Prior to Walden, Allio was head of the Live Oak School in San Francisco and taught for a couple years at The San Francisco School. He says having the latter’s yearbook dedicated to him (by a school known for accomplished teachers) is the highest accolade he has ever received.
Back making his rounds, Allio turns down one of the school’s hallways, which are lined with photos of its families. A couple of boys approach him. They want permission to hold a bake sale “to try to buy a solar panel for Walden,” says Nicky, a blond 10-year-old. The kids are part of an “energy ponderers” group. “You have to come and talk with me about it,” he says. “But I think it’s a good idea.”
Walden’s curriculum is strong on environmental sciences, another synergy between the school and its leader. For 25 years, Allio has biked virtually everywhere, including the commute from his home in an adapted-use building in South Pasadena, 16 miles round-trip. (He even spent a year, midcareer, as a bike messenger, hauling up San Francisco’s steep Nob Hill from the financial district more than a dozen times a day. “I loved it,” he recalls. “I never brought my work home with me.”) His inbound soundtrack is a James Taylor Pandora station; outbound, it’s Eminem. He uses his car when one of his three grown children comes to visit.
Back in his office, he confesses his pet peeve: parents saying, ‘when I was in third grade…’ “That doesn’t count anymore,” he says. “It’s a different world these kids live in, the pressure they feel, the sophistication that’s expected of them.” On a side table there’s a book of poems authored by Walden fourth and fifth graders. Inspired by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, each line begins with “I wish.” The kids’ aspirations are both personal (“I wish I could read fast, so I could read all the books I wanted”) and global (“I wish every family had a cozy and warm place to live and sleep”).
Allio says he likes working with elementary school kids because they’re “wide open to learning.” While the job can be exhausting, he says the rewards are worth it—“knowing that I have the potential to make change and seeing that change happen.”