Paul Stephenson, far right, co-founder of ASK Academy, attends the ribbon-cutting for the charter school 10 years ago. He plans to retire in July. File photo.

It was a tough decision, says Paul Stephenson, to leave his mistress of 10 years.

But that’s what he recently decided to do: retire.

His “mistress” — The ASK (Attitude, Skills and Knowledge) Academy — will no doubt miss him, too. He leaves “her” in good hands; his last day is July 1.

“(My late wife Melanie) always referred to the academy as my mistress,” he explained. “We spent so much time building it up to what it is. Five, 10 years ago, I never imagined where my heart would be, to let the academy go.”

But that decision has been made.

“Change is hard for anybody,” Stephenson, 61, said. “I give credit to my God for preparing me emotionally, physically and spiritually.”

There have been a few constants in the 10-year history of The ASK Academy, which now educates sixth- through 12th-graders, in Rio Rancho.

True, the charter school has had three locations, but that hasn’t mattered when it comes to churning out top-notch students in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math — hence its claim to being a STEM school.

When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic last month, The ASK Academy barely blinked.

“We can reach out to 100 percent of our kids, virtually, when they’re studying at home; we have a structured timeline and more,” Stephenson said. “There was some ramped-up learning, (but our scholars) are learning from their living rooms, bedrooms, closets…

“We know that we have a 1-to-1 ratio of technology to our kids; it’s stuff that we do daily… communicate with our kids daily in the normal world… probably easier for us than most,” he said.

Two ASK constants are the founders, former Rio Rancho High School science teachers Dan Barbour and Stephenson, the school’s director of curriculum. One will remain there as the 2020-21 school year begins.

In education for nearly three decades, Stephenson said it all began at Laguna-Acoma, “where I cut my teeth there coming out of the business world. I was there for five years before Russ Fisher-Ives called me.”

Fisher-Ives, he said, had been hired in 1996 to head the Science Academy at Rio Rancho High School, which opened in late August 1997.

Fisher-Ives, Barbour and Stephenson knew each other through competitions in MESA, New Mexico Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement, a pre-college program that prepares students for college and careers in mathematics, engineering, science or technical fields.

“I was happy to kick their butts,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson said being hired by Rio Rancho Public Schools was a career highlight.

“Being hired to teach at RRHS as part of the inaugural staff, and that concept that made Time Magazine (in October 1997) was career-changing,” he said. “I learned so much from that experience.

“ASK would be at the top — that experience of seeing where the Rio Rancho school district was going, away from what the inaugural staff called the academy concept, and being able to give (the area a choice) drove me to put in the idea of a charter school,” he said.

Other highlights were being one of three creators of the Rio Grande Consortium, a week-long math and science boot camp for teachers from nine districts, and Intel asking him and Fisher-Ives to put on math and science workshops for three summers.

What makes The ASK Academy successful, Stephenson was asked.

“Being small, I think,” he said. “One of the detriments in public education is school districts are way too large. …

“We’re also a school of choice — that means that families choose us. They don’t come to us because of the ZIP codes they live in,” he said, noting some of ASK’s more than 500 scholars commute from Cuba, Jemez, Corrales, Bernalillo, Placitas and Albuquerque’s east and west sides. “About 80 percent is from Rio Rancho.”

What’s next?

“Initially, I am divorcing myself from the ‘mistress’; let them be. I may come back and be on the board,” he said. “On my bucket list is doing announcing: I sing, I’m an actor — I can do voiceovers, a venture out of education. I want to use some of my creative, artsy, theatrical acting and skills I’ve been blessed with. Fisher-Ives asked me to come on board with them, do some international traveling with RoboRAVE — I may go to Cuba later this year, use some of my Spanish. And I want to do some traveling.

“I’m actually looking forward to retirement,” he concluded. “I want to write some books, putting some of my experiences into a career in education for others to learn from if they wish.”