ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Estefany Gonzalez was a freshman and failing at Rio Grande High School, she remembers her mother’s tears when administrators told the parent that all Estefany did at school was perform poorly or ditch class.
Gonzalez had started her freshman year at South Valley Academy charter school, but then convinced her parents to let her go to Rio Grande, so she wouldn’t be separated from her friends.
After her inauspicious start at Rio Grande, however, it wasn’t long before Gonzalez was back at South Valley Academy, a highly successful charter school that has just been named third best high school in the state by the magazine U.S. News and World Report.
Gonzalez recalls that before she was allowed to go back to South Valley Academy, she had to write a letter to staff and teachers, stating why she wanted to go back.
“I made a lot of bad decisions when I started my freshman year,” Gonzalez said. “I had disappointed my parents and that hurt me a lot, so I decided I would work hard to make them proud of me again.”
South Valley Academy welcomed her back, and she’s since made the most of her opportunity.
By her junior year, Gonzalez had come out of her shell, was getting good grades and had become a student leader. She became heavily involved with school and community projects through the school’s Community Service Learning Program.
A graduating senior, Gonzalez this year received a scholarship from the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce to attend the University of New Mexico, where she intends on studying psychology and pre-med in the hopes of becoming a psychiatrist.
Success stories like Gonzalez are becoming the norm at South Valley Academy since it opened its doors 12 years ago on a cottonwood-spotted campus on Blake SW off Coors.
Founded by Alan Marks and Katarina Sandoval, who is principal of the school, the school has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments and awards, including its recent state third-place standing in the fourth edition of Best High Schools, produced by U.S. News and World Report.
Other area schools recognized were Early College Academy in Albuquerque, which was ranked at the top of the state list, and La Cueva and Eldorado highs, ranked sixth and seventh, respectively. Sandia High received an honorable mention.
U.S. News evaluated nearly 22,000 high schools in 49 states, and the District of Columbia. They were ranked according to how well students did on the state assessment test, as well as in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. Only Nebraska was left out, because of insufficient data.
At South Valley Academy, more than 90 percent of students are Hispanic, with the vast majority being children of Mexican immigrants, Sandoval said, adding that over 93 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.
While many schools with those kinds of statistics struggle to reduce an “achievement gap” between Anglos and Hispanics or other groups, there are impressive gains being made at the academy, Sandoval said.
After growing up in the South Valley and graduating from West Mesa High, Sandoval went on to get degrees from Stanford and Harvard universities, and was intent on becoming a doctor.
In Southern California, Sandoval worked with Hispanic youth, influenced by fellow Stanford graduate and now Academy head teacher Julie Radoslovich. Sandoval credits Radoslovich with showing her how civic service could instill ideals of responsibility, hard work and achievement in young people.
When Sandoval returned to New Mexico, she realized she had always wanted to see better educational and economic opportunities for South Valley residents.
With the opening of the school, she instituted a formula for success: Give students a sense of empowerment by letting them know they are expected to take control of their own learning. Students identify their goals, with the help of their teachers, and they keep track of their progress.
In addition, the school’s Community Service Learning Program meets a half-day each week, and gets the students involved in organized community service.
In 2007, the school began an organic garden, which involves the students and staff in farming, learning the business of growing, harvesting, selling and delivering crops.
The school hires teachers who engage students and show a personal interest in students’ academic progress. Students number about 230 in grades 9-12. Parents are also encouraged to be actively involved in the education of their children.
The result: ninth-graders who enter school with about sixth- to seventh-grade average skills in reading and math leave with gains that allow 90 percent of the school’s graduates to go on to college.
Other graduating seniors, like Nancy Cabrera and Raziel Castaneda, described personal accounts of regaining control of their own lives, with the help of the academy, to become personal success stories.
Sandoval said she was proud of the school’s latest achievement, adding that it reflects “incredible commitment and hard work” by students, parents, the staff and community.
As Sandoval surveyed the latest crop of graduates, she said she’s sure she made the right decision to eschew a medical career.
“And then there are those days, like when the ninth-graders give me a particularly rough day, that I briefly think about going back to med school,” Sandoval said with a smile.