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What’s in a grade?

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Students at South Valley Academy walk past a mural in the middle of the school. Principal Julie Radoslovich wants to show the community there is more to her school than just a D school grade.. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: With school grades in the spotlight lately, the principal of South Valley Academy recently offered to open her charter school’s doors to make the case for how the D-graded high school benefits its students.

South Valley Academy, an Albuquerque Public Schools-authorized charter school, has been a D school two years in a row.

Julie Radoslovich, prinicpal of South Valley Academy, says the school’s report card doesn’t show its success.

Principal Julie Radoslovich will tell you that and will tell you there’s room to improve.

But she also will tell you that the Title I school — meaning at least 50 percent of enrolled students are low income — with a 96 percent Hispanic population is doing more than the report card shows.

“We believe the school report card does not capture SVA’s success,” she told the Journal.

Radoslovich wants to show the community there is more to her school, which received a B in 2014 and a C in 2015, than just that current D grade. And she points to her high graduation rates as proof.

Earlier this year, APS released data showing the class of 2017, including APS-authorized charter schools, had a 67.9 percent grad rate. South Valley Academy’s rate was 86.6 percent for 2017.

“Our 87 percent four-year and 94 percent six-year high school graduation rate and 38 percent (two-year and four-year) college completion rates are what we think depict the true value of an SVA education,” she said.

Radoslovich said a big goal at SVA is to keep kids in school even if it takes them longer to graduate, saying the high immigrant population of the community has challenges — including poverty, language barriers and access to resources — that affects kids’ schooling.

“The likelihood of a child growing up in poverty and graduating high school and obtaining a college degree is extremely low, whether in Albuquerque’s South Valley or other places nationally,” Radoslovich wrote in an email to the Journal. “Growing up in poverty does impact academic success.”

While graduation rates are high, the school’s traditional student competency scores are low — a factor in the school’s D grade. According to SVA’s 2017 school report card, 14 percent of its students were proficient or higher in reading and 4 percent were proficient or higher in math when calculating overall for all grade levels. The school serves sixth through 12th grades.

How do so many students graduate, if their proficiency is low?

The majority of SVA students who have not passed required exams provide a letter of acceptance from a two- or four-year institute, Radoslovich said. State law allows districts to adopt “alternate demonstrations of competency” in order to meet graduation requirements.

SVA adopted the same options offered by APS, Radoslovich said, which includes an acceptance letter from a four-year or two-year college.

But state Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski recently criticized schools’ use of college acceptance letters to allow students to graduate with a high school diploma, pointing out that some do not require any academic standards to be accepted. He said it’s an area PED wants to clamp down in the future.

And he stressed the importance of having student competency scores and improvement be an important factor in school grades.

Radoslovich said the graduation rate and success at a higher education program is a better barometer.

She said 38 percent of SVA grads either receive a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree, per data on classes between 2008 and 2011.

That compares favorably to the national average for low-income areas, and the SVA community is nearly exclusively low-income, Hispanic youth who live in the 87105 and 87121 ZIP codes.

The U.S. Department of Education reports only 9 percent of students from low-income families in the country graduate with a bachelor’s degree by age 24.

SVA, with a school population of 332 students at the high school and 281 at the middle school, is in the heart of the South Valley, a region with a median household income of $37,639, $8,035 less than the state as a whole, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Most other schools in the South Valley are also D and F schools, New Mexico Public Education Department school grades data shows.

‘I wouldn’t be here today’

Radoslovich said one strength not reflected in the report card is SVA’s emphasis on a social justice curriculum, relationship building with teachers and mentors and involvement and access to physical and mental health services.

She also highlighted the school’s Service Learning Program that allows students to earn high school credit while doing community service. Part of the program is the Senior Action Project, which has students analyze and research a problem in the community with a solution-oriented project that gives back to the community.

Fabian Arreola, an South Valley Academy almnus and staff member, works with sophomore Bryan Ordonez during study hall period. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Fabian Arreola, 18, an alumnus, University of New Mexico student and academy staff member, did his senior project on a topic close to his heart: raising awareness for those that identify as double minorities, existing both in the LGBTQ community and as a minority ethnicity. He also studied the psychological effects of having a double-minority identity.

Arreola said it was thanks to SVA that he was able to build his own identity.

But the school did much more.

It saved his life.

“I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

Arreola, who came out as gay at 12 years old, struggled with depression.

“It was hard to come out because the Hispanic community isn’t that familiar (with the LGBTQ community),” he said.

A teacher noticed a change in Arreola’s behavior and ultimately would help connect him to a therapist through the school — a resource that Arreola feels saved his life.

Arreola is now studying at UNM to be a counselor to create a safe space for other students like SVA did for him.

He and his family have deep roots in the SVA community. He attended all four years of high school there, is now a mentor for study hall at the school, and his little brother is part of the middle school program.

“The D grade isn’t looking at the whole picture,” he said.

PED weighs in

But the school grades system is “one of the most balanced approaches in the region,” according to Ruszkowski.

“(The school report card) is well aligned with the mission of South Valley Academy,” he said, emphasizing that the report card does take into account graduation and college and career readiness.

But he stressed that schools have to foster both academic growth and proficiency in addition to the community and social efforts.

Ruszkowski also said schools with similar student populations as SVA are making greater strides.

He pointed to Desert View Elementary and Mission Achievement and Success — which both earned A grades from PED last year — as schools improving despite serving a high percentage of low-income and minority students.

“These schools are proving demographics don’t determine student long-term success,” he said.

Radoslovich said she didn’t know enough about those schools to comment, but added, “I am happy when schools and their students do well.”

What’s behind SVA’s D grade

School grading was mandated by New Mexico state lawmakers in 2011.

A school’s report card is made up of several categories:

Current standing: Are students performing on grade level, according to PARCC student test scores? Did they improve more or less than expected?

School improvement: Is the school as a whole making academic progress?

Improvement of higher-performing students: Are higher-performing students improving more or less than expected?

Improvement of lowest-performing students: Are the lowest-performing students improving more or less 0than expected?

Opportunity to learn: Do students and families believe their school is a good place to attend and learn?

Graduation: Are students graduating high school and is the graduation rate improving?

College and career readiness: Are students participating in college and career readiness opportunities? Are they demonstrating success?

Schools also can earn bonus points for “reducing truancy, promoting extracurricular activities, engaging families and using technology.”

In 2017, SVA received Fs in current standing based on the low PARCC test scores, in school improvement and improvement of lowest-performing students. It received a D in improvement of higher-performing students.

But the school got an A in opportunity to learn and college and career readiness, as well as a B in graduation.

SVA was a B school in 2014 and a C in 2015 before its consecutive Ds the past two years. The principal cites PARCC as the reason the school saw this drop in grades.

“Before New Mexico switched to PARCC, our students outperformed schools with similar demographics in the city and in the state,” she said.

School grades and PARCC testing are controversial in New Mexico, with teachers from various districts saying it’s a one-size-fits-all approach that may not be the best measurement for all schools.

And Radoslovich agrees, saying PARCC in particular doesn’t assess everything a student needs to be successful in college, career and community.

Juniors Javier Anaya, center, and Adrian Delgado, left, work on a chemistry project at South Valley Academy. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“PARCC score is a reasonable, intermediate measure of academic achievement, but our ultimate goal and the ultimate metrics against which we hold ourselves are keeping students engaged, growing students academically over time (not just mere proficiency), ensuring the highest graduation rate possible, and, most importantly, preparing students for success once they leave SVA,” Radoslovich said.

But ultimately the principal will tell you that she prides herself on kids wanting to come to school.

Of parents surveyed over the past four years, an average of 97 percent said SVA had a positive impact on the education of their child.

Radoslovich noted for every open spot during its annual lottery, the school gets 2.2 applicants.

“Some of our parents are asked why would you send your kid to a D school,” she said. “But parents say, ‘Because my child wants to go to school every day.'”

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