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Editorial: APS, Dulce must embrace change for students’ sake

Albuquerque Public Schools has until April 11 to take the lead in turning around three of its worst-performing schools.

Its leaders need to embrace this second chance for the sake of their students. Because if they don’t, the New Mexico Public Education Department will. Either way, the students at Los Padillas, Whittier and Hawthorne elementaries deserve better than schools that get an “F” grade year after year after year because too few improve academically. They deserve thriving, successful schools where students of every background can achieve and succeed in the classroom.

APS’ first turnaround go-round fell short, with the district opting for what amounts to re-arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship. There was little to no mention of embracing student data or focusing on improving student outcomes to ensure kids are learning. There were minimal changes in talent, with the district opting to help educators “embark on a professional development journey” rather than setting up a system to get high-performing lead teachers and principals in place, now. There appeared to be no real commitment to increased instructional time, be it longer or additional classes or intensive tutoring. Yet all four schools requested inordinate amounts of extra funding – as in seven figures each – for their minimal changes. APS was asking for about $3 million per school over the three-year period, or about $1 million a year.

In total, APS delivered three near-identical plans that lacked the “requisite urgency, clarity and cohesiveness to dramatically improve student achievement outcomes,” state Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski wrote to APS officials.

Los Padillas, Whittier and Hawthorne are ranked as three of the four worst schools in the state, the fourth being Dulce Elementary in northern New Mexico. The schools have received Fs for five or six consecutive years. Dulce also had its proposal rejected and was also given three weeks to come up with a better plan. There’s no doubt these schools face serious challenges, including high poverty populations. We don’t doubt that their principals and teachers care deeply for their students and are working hard. But the status quo isn’t working.

Should the districts fail to put forth real improvement plans acceptable to PED, then it will be up to Ruszkowski to decide what to do next, and he could go as far as locking all four schoolhouse doors. That may seem harsh, but given the schools’ abysmal track records, drastic measures are needed.

Among PED’s suggested measures are:

• Bringing in principals who have multiyear track records of increasing student performance and paying them more than other principals in the district.

• Bringing in teachers with highly effective or exemplary performances.

• Attracting these teachers by paying them more than those who work in other schools in the district.

• Increasing the time students spend with these high-performing teachers.

APS and the Dulce school district should embrace the recommendations and build their turnaround plans around them. And they should also embrace another suggestion that Ruszkowski has put forth: suspending collective bargaining agreements at the failing schools for the next three years.

“In an urgent school turnaround situation with our students’ futures at stake, the superintendent and school principal will need the freedom to manage all aspects of the district and school, and the freedom to make student-centered decisions pertaining to scheduling and staffing,” he wrote.

Yes, suspending collective bargaining agreements for employees at these four failing schools would be extreme, but it needs to happen given the obstructionist actions of some union officials.

Take, for instance, what happened when APS recently asked teachers, parents and students to weigh in on budget priorities via an online budget survey. Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein responded with an email blast to thousands of people the union represents, urging “every employee in APS represented by this union” not to take the survey, because she felt it was problematic, divisive and inappropriate. Seriously?

What’s truly problematic, divisive and inappropriate is a union leader trying to stifle teacher input into how the largest school district in the state allocates its resources. One would think that the union would be advocating for more input from teachers, not less.

We applaud APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy and her team for soliciting input from teachers and other stakeholders. And we encourage teachers to reject Bernstein’s rhetoric and to take the time to complete the survey.

Given the stances New Mexico teachers unions have been taking – remember the pledge to fight the $5,000 and $10,000 bonuses for exemplary teachers? – it makes sense to take them out of the equation when it comes to reforming N.M.’s four lowest-performing schools.

These students deserve to get the education they need to advance in school and in life. And if their school leaders can establish successful plans that deliver academic results, it will provide models for other struggling schools in the state.

It’s time for APS and the Dulce school district to step up and do what’s right for their, and New Mexico’s, kids.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.