Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Hispanic students are now a majority at Rio Rancho Public Schools. In fact, Hispanic students have increased to 48 percent of the student population, but are not a majority.
Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
The landscape of Rio Rancho Public Schools’ student population has seen a big shift in the last decade or so.
There are now more Hispanic students than Anglo students, students from other countries are attending Rio Rancho schools and more students are living in low-income households. That’s in contrast to when the Rio Rancho district was formed in 1993 and primarily served Anglo upper- and middle-class students.
And although the district does not track homeless students, the number of requests it received for financial assistance jumped by more than 70 percent between 2011-2012 and the most recent school year – to nearly 500 families seeking help with basic necessities. The shift has required the district to adjust to meet needs that are as diverse as its student population. Enrollment in the recently ended school year was 16,884.
Superintendent Sue Cleveland said that, years ago, teachers and staff didn’t have to think much about diversity, because Rio Rancho was not very diverse. The enrollment change, however, has provided a unique opportunity, she said.
“There are businesses here, like Intel, that bring families from all over the world,” she said. “It provides such enrichment for our other students. We live in a global economy, and this is an opportunity for students to mix with those from different backgrounds and will serve them well in the future.”
In addition to its shifting ethnic makeup, the district is now grappling with more poverty. During the 2000-01 school year, the percentage of students in the district who received free and reduced lunches was 26.6 percent. In the 2011-12 school year, the figure grew to 48.5 percent but fell slightly to 45.9 percent in the most recent school year.
Rio Rancho spokeswoman Kim Vesely said the decrease was because, starting in the 2012-13 school year, school districts and the state calculated their free and reduced rate by counting only students who are actually receiving free and reduced lunches. Previous years included all eligible students regardless of whether they were actually using the benefit.
Hispanics now make up 48.6 percent of Rio Rancho’s student body, and Anglos are at 39.7 percent. In 2001, the earliest year for which the district provided data, 33.2 percent of students were identified as Hispanic and about 57 percent were Anglo.
Cleveland said the district has made strides in closing the achievement gap between its Hispanic and Anglo students.
“When we compare the performance of our middle-class Hispanic students to our middle-class Anglo students, their performance is equal,” she said. “It’s the students struggling financially and who speak another language (English Language Learners) that have lower performances.”
Cleveland said a key piece of improving student performance, especially in these groups, is parent communication.
“Parent engagement is critical,” she said. “I think Victoria is very masterful at opening those lines of communication.”
She was referring to Victoria Tafoya, a former Puesta del Sol Elementary administrator who was named director of federal, bilingual and Native American programs – a position created in 2006 specifically to deal with the district’s shifting ethnic make-up.
“I see our district is changing, and I would rather be proactive,” Tafoya said. “I want to create an atmosphere that’s welcoming to all families. I think, six years ago, cultural awareness was not even a topic.”
Since becoming director, Tafoya has put in place interpreter services and has started an annual powwow and a Native American Summer Academy. All schools now have a sign posted in the front office in a variety of languages, including Spanish, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, that reads, “If you need assistance in a language other than English, please let the receptionist at your school know.” Parents can indicate which language they speak, and the receptionist will give them a form, in their native language, to request an interpreter.
The goal, Tafoya said, is to make those families feel welcome in the community and at their neighborhood schools. Interpreters help parents communicate with staff during the registration process and about any concerns throughout the school year. Since 2007, the request for interpreter services has increased exponentially. That first year, there were only seven requests. During the recently ended school year, there were 112 requests. Tafoya said part of the increase can be attributed to better awareness of the service, but much of it is simply an increase in need. The languages requested have included Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hebrew, German and Dutch.
Tafoya recently told the school board she was surprised to find that the fastest growing population of English Language Learners was Vietnamese students during the most recent school year. The first year the district tracked the numbers was 2006, when 25 students listed Vietnamese as their home language. That number is currently 70. Tafoya said the largest growing Vietnamese population is at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary.
Asian students as a whole make up less than 2 percent of the district’s student enrollment.
Principal Kathy House said many of the Vietnamese students are part of an extended family or knew one another in their homeland. She said the staff is striving not only to meet the academic needs of the students, but also to include the families in social events at the school. “It’s been really interesting for me personally,” she said. “We are trying to get ideas of what we can incorporate into these school celebrations, maybe something from their culture, to draw them to the school.”
Cleveland said she does not know if the increase in low-income students is due to the recession or to more low-income families moving to the city. “We are seeing more homeless students,” she said. “We try to find out who they are without embarrassing the child or the family. We have families living out of cars or with other families. I think there are far more out there than we have on the books.”
The district does not have a way to track homeless students, but in 2011 it received a $14,480 federal grant that allows it to purchases basic necessities for homeless families. The district applies for the grant annually; it will receive $12,600 for the coming school year. During the 2011-2012 school year, it received 280 requests for assistance. Tafoya said that number jumped to 483 in the most recent school year.
Regardless of background or income, Cleveland said the district must make sure every student is performing at grade level.
“You’ve got to meet the needs of children you have, whether they come from China or Ireland, well-off or not,” she said. “It’s becoming a great challenge, but it’s advantageous for our students as well. It gives kids another window to the world.”