FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to reflect that the charter for the Academy of Trades & Technology school will expire if the full Board of Education backs the committee vote on Friday.
Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Three vocational high schools received unanimous support for charter authorization from an Albuquerque Public Schools board committee on Wednesday, despite the Public Education Department’s opposition.
Architecture Construction and Engineering Leadership High School, Health Leadership High School and Technology Leadership High School – all part of the Leadership Schools Network – each received backing for three-year charters.
Academy of Trades & Technology was not approved for APS authorization in a 6-1 vote, with board member Peggy Muller-Aragón dissenting.
The four schools are all currently chartered by the state, but were seeking to switch to APS authorization.
Wednesday’s approvals by the Policy and Instruction Committee fell in line with the recommendations of the district’s charter school review team, which supported the Leadership Schools and opposed AT&T.
PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski had urged the board to turn down all four schools.
“It’s hard to justify how charter schools earning multiple failing grades in a row and drawing significant taxpayer resources without getting tangible results for kids can go authorizer shopping,” he said in a statement earlier this week. “It’s even harder to justify how another authorizer would interpret that multi-year track record as a rationale for renewal for some schools, but not others. It’s now totally unclear where APS stands on the health of the charter school sector.”
Board member Barbara Petersen said she believes PED’s opposition to the Leadership Schools is a political attack motivated by the schools’ push for alternative types of testing.
“We’re in a funny position because everyone has read the newspapers – everyone knows what APS has been told if we accept these schools,” she said. “We as a board just have to go about what is best for students.”
Without the Leadership Schools, a group of roughly 900 students will lose an educational model that is benefiting them, Petersen said.
Board President Dave Peercy advocated for APS to form a partnership with the Leadership Schools – a closer relationship than a standard charter that will allow the district to boost its vocational offerings.
“This is a powerful new idea,” he said. “We are on the edge of something we can call innovative.”
The Leadership Schools offer project-based vocational learning to kids who have struggled in traditional settings, including some older students who are working toward diplomas after years away from the classroom.
By traditional measures, the schools have not been successful: They have earned a string of D or F grades, and reading and math proficiency rates are in the single digits.
But school leaders told the board that they have re-engaged students who are at high risk of dropping out altogether and many have found successful careers after graduation.
“We do think we bring something different to the table,” said Blanca Lopez, executive director of Health Leadership High School.
Daniel Ivey-Soto, an attorney who represents the three Leadership Schools seeking APS approval, said he was offended that PED didn’t complete a full review of the schools before declaring that they aren’t worthy of renewal.
To Ivey-Soto, PED is so focused on test scores that numbers become “a proxy for children.”
PED also blindsided the schools, Ivey-Soto said, by suddenly advocating for closure without giving them an opportunity to correct problems.
He told the Journal that the schools are decamping for APS because PED has a “punitive” approach and does not communicate well.
“We are seeking relevant accountability,” he said.
The Leadership Schools’ charters do have some caveats: they must meet a number of goals, including improved participation in assessments.
Ivey-Soto told the Journal he felt the APS charter school review team came up with fair conditions after a thorough review – in contrast to PED.
Academy of Trades & Technology did not find similar support from the APS board committee.
The school has struggled in a number of areas, including services for special education students and English Language Learners.
During the 2015-16 school year, the school’s habitual truancy rate was 81 percent. It failed to report any truancy data for 2016-17.
Enrollment has dropped steadily from 151 students in 2015-16 to about 90 currently, according to governing council Vice President Dick Winterbottom.
Board member Candy Patterson told Winterbottom that she was very concerned the school has not been tracking its students and can’t say with certainty how many are enrolled.
Winterbottom acknowledged that there have been issues, but said the current school administration has plans to solve them.
He also stressed that AT&T serves struggling students: over 90 percent are economically disadvantaged and nearly 30 percent are English Language Learners.
“It’s a tough population,” he said.
Winterbottom worried that many AT&T students will drop out altogether rather than switch to a new school.
Without the APS board’s backing, AT&T’s charter will expire.
Muller-Aragón said she cast the lone “no” vote on the resolution to deny the charter because she is concerned about the students’ futures.
The state would be responsible for overseeing the school’s closure, though Petersen said APS will work to ensure that the students find good alternatives.
On Wednesday, the APS committee also approved a five-year charter for Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School, one of the top performers in the state. Cottonwood has been chartered by the PEC.
Five schools that were already under APS’ authority were renewed: Albuquerque Talent and Development Academy, Corrales International School, El Camino Real Academy, La Resolana Leadership Academy and Montessori of the Rio Grande.
The full APS board will cast final votes on all the schools Friday.