JARALES — Gil Sanchez Elementary, a tidy school just off Highway 109 south of Belen, is a friendly, unassuming success story.
During the past year, the school boosted its grade from a C to an A thanks to data-driven instruction, clear goals and lots of hard work.
It is now among the highest-performers in the state.
Across New Mexico, only 14 percent of schools received an A grade, according to 2017 results released by the Public Education Department last week.
Gil Sanchez Elementary is particularly notable because it is part of the federal Title I anti-poverty program, and almost 80 percent of the 292 students are members of minority groups.
New Mexico Secretary of Education-designate Christopher Ruszkowski visited the school earlier this month and said it is an inspiration.
“It’s awesome what they’re doing,” he said. “I’m gushing. … I was blown away. The things they were saying are so exactly what one would hope for.”
Principal E. Renee Sanchez said it’s gratifying to see her staff’s work translate into strong results.
“We had talent here, but now we are all going the same direction,” said Sanchez, a Belen-area native who became principal in January 2015 after 15 years in the classroom.
Her office is ground zero for the transformation.
From Monday to Thursday, teachers gather around the conference table to review the state’s Common Core standards and compare them with students’ performance.
The group writes out detailed descriptions of the standards on large pieces of white butcher paper and hangs them on the wall to understand the progress children are expected to show at each grade level.
For instance, second-graders are asked to “describe the overall structure of a story, including describing how the beginning introduces the story and the ending concludes the action.”
By sixth grade, they should be able to “explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.”
Fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Lewis said the weekly meetings have been helpful.
“Every grade builds if they have a good foundation,” she said.
Lewis and the other teachers discuss the standards with their students and give regular exams to assess their progress.
The approach is showing results.
Gil Sanchez students’ scores on the PARCC — New Mexico’s main standardized test — have grown steadily over the last two years.
Math proficiency climbed from 16 percent in 2015 to 32 percent this year. In reading, the rate rose from 37 percent to 41 percent.
Lewis — a 10-year veteran of Gil Sanchez Elementary — said the school’s new data-driven approach is “a lot more guided and clear” than before.
“I love reading and I thought I was a good reading teacher, but I would get my scores back and they wouldn’t reflect what I thought we had done all year,” she said. “This, I think, matches the PARCC and what they need.”
While Gil Sanchez Elementary is taking a close look at data, it doesn’t neglect the human side of teaching.
Staff strive to create a positive, respectful culture for students, Sanchez said.
The Journal visited several classrooms and saw students learning about cells, plants and letters. Sanchez said the children are generally engaged and well behaved.
“We try to guide them through modeling,” she said. “We are trying to be intentional with how students talk to students and students talk to teachers.”
At the same time, Sanchez said she believes all children should be held to high expectations.
“It’s our job to create a safe place and educate them,” she said. “If we’re not, we’re doing a disservice to the child. These parents trust us with their kids.”
Gil Sanchez Elementary is entering its third year of intensive, standards-focused teacher groups, and Lewis said she can’t wait to see what they are able to accomplish next.
New Mexico’s school grades are largely based on standardized test results, particularly the improvement students show from year to year. For elementary schools, test score growth makes up 65 percent of the total grade.
The Public Education Department is starting to weigh overall proficiency more heavily, bumping it up from 15 percent in 2015 to 25 percent today. In 2019, proficiency will make up 33 percent of an elementary school’s grade.
Sanchez said her school is setting ambitious goals and digging deeper into the data.
She acknowledged that the process has been exhausting at times, and the teachers can disagree during the weekly meetings, but student learning is always the priority.
Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Max Perez emphasized that there are “no magic ingredients, just hard work.”
Gil Sanchez’s success is “energizing and exciting to the rest of us and the rest of the schools,” Perez said.
“We have this confirmation that we are doing things the right way,” he added.
Sanchez said Perez has supported her efforts and advocated for more data-driven instruction across the district.
A few years ago, he asked all schools to start creating 90-day plans and year-end goals to stay on track — a process PED instituted through the Principals Pursing Excellence mentorship program.
The community is also on board, Sanchez said.
“Parents are talking about standards now,” she said.