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War of words over 3 failing APS schools

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Public Education Department Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski, flanked by Mission Achievement and Success charter school board chairman Bruce Langston, left, and principal JoAnn Mitchell, speaks at Mission Achievement and Success on Tuesday to announce policy on failing schools. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Several Albuquerque Public Schools board members lashed out at state public education chief Christopher Ruszkowski this week, accusing him of insulting the district during a surprise press conference announcing failing elementary schools.

APS administration also insisted it had been told it would be given 24 hours notice so it could notify parents of the affected schools.

But Ruszkowski expressed in an interview with the Journal an urgency for APS to turn low-performing schools around and not accept any excuses. He said that if the schools do not improve within the next few years, lawmakers should consider drastic actions regarding the state’s largest school district.

On Tuesday, Ruszkowski held a press conference in Albuquerque to announce a list of failing elementary schools targeted for “more rigorous interventions.” Three of the four schools are within the Albuquerque school system.

Hawthorne Elementary School, at 420 General Somervell SE, and Whittier Elementary School, at 1110 Quincy SE, landed on the list for receiving six consecutive F grades since 2012. Los Padillas Elementary School at 2525 Los Padillas SW has earned five consecutive F’s. Dulce Elementary School, near the Colorado border, was also listed for earning five F’s.

Board member Yolanda Montoya-Cordova, the recently appointed representative for the South Valley, said she was “very upset” about the way PED handled the announcement.

“None of us should ever lead like that to create any kind of drama or upset the families who already feel marginalized, who already feel like they are left out of the process or uncertain about things,” said Montoya-Cordova, who represents Los Padillas Elementary.

But Ruszkowski also was not mincing words.

“This has been flirted with for decades — a different structure for APS, a different governance structure, the ability for the state to take over a district, the ability for the state to appoint a different superintendent for a district,” he said. “There are a lot of options that the Legislature could explore if Albuquerque does not choose to do something different.”

As for the four schools identified during the news conference, the district can choose from four options outlined in the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan: close the school,  relaunch it as a charter school, reorganize it or “champion” parents’ option to transfer students to other schools. A letter of intent is due to PED by Jan. 9, and a full plan outlining the turnaround steps is due by Feb. 12.

“For those schools, they are going to have to make a series of choices, and it is on their plate — it is for them to decide,” Ruszkowski said during the Tuesday news conference. “They have to own it. We say at the Public Education Department, school improvement is a choice.”

“These schools, from where I stand, should already be doing things dramatically differently after one F or two F’s or three F’s, or four F’s,” he said. “We get to this point of five, six F’s, this summer maybe seven F’s in a row. … We want our school boards and our districts to take control of the situation and to actually break down the barriers. … That’s the question that has to be asked: Why haven’t they already taken action?”

APS board member Barbara Petersen, who represents Hawthorne and Whittier, said she was so infuriated by Ruskowski’s comments that she could barely speak.

“I know at Hawthorne and Whittier, teachers walk in every day to serve their students,” she said. “And that’s the most insulting thing from the PED — to act like we don’t already care, and that we are not already paying attention to what we do for students.”

POOR TIMING?

Superintendent Raquel Reedy stressed that the district has spent the summer and fall considering new ways to help its struggling schools through initiatives like the academic master plan, data reviews, summer program ideas, tiered support to schools and other steps.

“We have had straightforward discussions with our schools, especially schools we thought might be identified as MRI, (“more rigorous interventions”) etc., by the PED,” Reedy told the board on Wednesday. “Those difficult conversations have already taken place — they’ve been ongoing. Schools were made aware of this possibility, and schools are moving forward in this process as I speak.”

While APS knew a number of its schools would end up on the list, Ruszkowski’s official announcement came as a surprise.

District spokeswoman Johanna King told the Journal that PED had assured APS administrators that they would receive 24-hour notice before any press conference about low-performing schools. Principals were working on letters to send home to families, explaining the situation, King said.

But APS never heard from PED, and parents learned that their schools could face closure on the news.

Reedy told the Journal she thought PED and APS had been partnering well and encouraged the secretary to “communicate with us.”

“There has to be collaboration,” she said. “We have to talk to each other.”

The Jan. 9 deadline is also an issue, Reedy said.

Months ago, APS administrators had heard that PED would announce the list of low-performing schools in October, and the delay means schools have little time for community meetings to discuss the four options.

Winter break begins on Dec. 18, making the timeline even tighter, Reedy said.

When the Journal asked PED about the promise for a 24-hour notice and communication issues with APS,  PED spokeswoman Lida Alikhani said the state’s ESSA plan has been public for most of 2017 and meetings between PED and APS have been ongoing, so the district should have been prepared.

“This week’s announcement is five years in the making — that’s how much time the district had to galvanize their schools, parents, families, and stakeholders around a more ambitious vision of school performance and student success,” she said in a statement. “It’s hard to hear that the announcement was in any way surprising when there have been students who have attended grades 1st through 6th in a failing school.”

To APS board member Lorenzo Garcia, PED staff are “disconnected bureaucrats” who treated the district with incredible disrespect.

“The fact of the matter is we have been accountable,” he said. “These guys (PED) must be watching too many Tombstone movies because they call for days of reckoning, all this media crap.”

But Ruszkowski said the proof is in the numbers: the four MRI elementary schools have dismal math and reading proficiency rates.

“For Albuquerque this is a gut check moment,” Ruszkowski said. “They know what they need to do. I fundamentally believe that Albuquerque knows what it needs to do.”

APS associate superintendent Gabriella Blakey said it’s not so simple, and that she was surprised by Ruszkowski’s suggestion that even more drastic measures should occur if APS doesn’t show improvement.

“If these schools knew what the magic answer was, we would have implemented that a long time ago,” said Blakey, who leads APS Learning Zone 1, the southeast quadrant of the district.

Hawthorne and Whittier have both made progress on attendance — a cornerstone of the district academic master plan.

Principals are also sharing ideas during instruction rounds, a concept borrowed from doctors’ hospital rounds that includes classroom observation and student discussions.

Blakey invited Ruszkowski to visit Hawthorne, Whittier and Los Padillas to see the work for himself.

“We continue to look for ways to increase achievement,” she said.

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