The executive director of one of New Mexico’s highest-performing schools recently opted to not seek renewal of his charter from the state, citing a sometimes combative relationship with the Public Education Department.
Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School instead sought a charter from the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education and was granted a five-year authorization that will begin in July.
Sam Obenshain, Cottonwood Classical executive director, told the Journal he is happy to start a new chapter with APS.
“It felt like the relationship (with PED’s charter schools division) had not been as positive as we would have liked,” he said. “I do think the climate and tenor of the interactions has taken a turn downward. … In spite of our success, the climate felt like they were trying to catch us doing something wrong.”
Obenshain was the acting head of PED’s charter schools division from October 2010 to June 2011. He said he understands its challenges, but the climate was particularly concerning because Cottonwood Classical is such a high-performing school.
Launched in 2007, Cottonwood Classical offers the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, and its graduates have been accepted to some of the most prestigious colleges in the country.
The school – located at 7801 Jefferson NE – serves about 700 students in grades six to 12. Over the past four years, it has earned three A’s and one B.
Obenshain said, compared to PED, his experience with APS “has felt like night and day in terms of the open and inviting process they have.”
He said he hopes the district will “honor the charter school bargain” as Cottonwood’s new authorizer.
“Our accountability is built in the charter system,” Obenshain said. “Every five years (when charters come up for renewal), we have a chance to be shut down. The other part of that bargain is to be given the autonomy at our site to meet the needs of our kids and our community.”
New Mexico Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski told the Journal he considers Cottonwood Classical a very successful school, but also said the PED charter schools division is doing its job.
“It’s the charter school division’s responsibility to enforce all of the statutes and all of the requirements that are on the books,” he said.
Ruszkowski said he would support statutory changes granting top charters schools more flexibility and autonomy than their lower-performing peers.
Matthew Pahl, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, said his organization agrees.
“There has been a lot of talk about that, and I think we are on the cusp of having some action and actually seeing that autonomy,” Pahl said.
Under state law, charter school authorizers are not in charge of a school’s daily operations, but they do have oversight of academic outcomes, fiscal management and adherence to statutes and laws. Charters can be revoked if a school fails to meet its obligations.
School districts and the Public Education Commission – a body of 10 elected commissioners from around the state – both have the power to grant charters.
The commission is independent from the PED, but PED’s charter school staff make recommendations for actions like approval or nonrenewal of charters.
There are roughly 100 charter schools across New Mexico of widely varying quality.
Along with Cottonwood Classical, the APS board voted to accept three charter schools with low test scores in December: Architecture Construction and Engineering Leadership High School, Health Leadership High School and Technology Leadership High School.
Ruszkowski criticized the board’s decision, saying it’s “now totally unclear where APS stands on the health of the charter school sector.”
But Obenshain defended the three schools.
PED’s objections are political, Obenshain argued, because the schools advocate for alternative forms of assessment.
Obenshain said the state is “all in on its grading system,” which heavily weighs scores from standardized tests like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC.
“Charter schools, the basic idea is to challenge the status quo and be innovative in education,” Obenshain said. “That includes innovation in how students are evaluated.”