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Stop haggling over fixing schools, PED tells APS

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The Public Education Department reiterated on Tuesday that Albuquerque Public Schools must fully accept its next steps for the district’s worst-performing schools, or it faces losing control over them.

The agency sent two letters to Superintendent Raquel Reedy saying that for APS to maintain authority over Los Padillas and Whittier elementary schools and move forward with overhauling them, it has to fully commit to state-approved plans by Friday. A final plan for Hawthorne Elementary is expected later this week.

PED designated all three elementary schools as being in need of “more rigorous intervention,” or MRI schools, because they received five or six F annual school grades in a row.

Since the MRI designations were made late last year, APS and PED have gone back and forth on restructuring plans intended to improve the schools.

PED rejected the district’s original plans but conditionally approved its resubmission on April 27 while seeking APS’ full commitment to PED-mandated conditions.

And while APS accepted PED’s response earlier this month, the district included terms of its own. It included a caveat that would allow the district to stop or change implementation of the plan if needed.

But PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski told the Journal on Tuesday, “APS inappropriately responded to the April 27 letters as if they weren’t final.”

He and the agency made it clear in Tuesday’s letters that APS cannot get the $2 million allotted for each school to implement restructuring or be approved to move forward unless the district accepts PED’s plans completely, without additional terms.

“Districts that underserve students for more than five years straight require further conditions, oversight, and consequences. This is common sense,” PED’s letter said.

APS has until Friday to respond.

APS headquarters in Uptown Albuquerque.

APS headquarters in Uptown Albuquerque. (Albuquerque Journal)

In an email sent to the Journal on Tuesday, APS spokeswoman Johanna King said, “The district is reviewing the letters sent … from the Public Education Department concerning Los Padillas and Whittier elementary schools. My understanding is that we have until Friday to respond, at which time we will be in a better position to comment. We are looking forward to further collaboration with PED.”

At an emotional APS Board of Education meeting earlier this month, board and community members rallied for the schools.

At the time, Reedy said she was “disillusioned” by PED’s April decisions and said she had asked Ruszkowski to visit the schools and collaborate with APS, but that didn’t happen.

Parents also took to the lectern at the board meeting, questioning the validity of PED’s school grading system and sharing the importance each school plays in the community.

Democratic state Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque spoke, too, saying she questioned whether the PED’s authority allows for the actions the department has taken on the MRI schools.

She said she thinks the department has “wildly misinterpreted ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).”

The senator, who lives five houses away from Hawthorne, said she is going to fight to keep the school open.

Board President David Peercy said at the meeting that taking legal action “is in our back pocket.” But the board will first review the PED’s response.

In Tuesday’s letters, the PED did accept and apply some terms APS proposed for its MRI plan.

For instance, the district asked for more time to move forward with some of the agency’s requirements, which will now be incorporated into the plan. And APS addressed the PED’s condition from last month that stipulates a principal and assistant principal will be removed from the schools if their students do not show a certain amount of progress by benchmark dates.

APS pointed out that the current principals, who replaced the previous principals earlier this year, have multiyear contracts and said any changes “will be done in accordance with the principal evaluation system required by the PED,” which the department also accepted.

And the PED agreed to modify the type of teachers that must be at the schools.

The PED had previously required all of Los Padillas’ and Whittier’s teachers be rated highly effective or exemplary. But Tuesday’s letter allows for effective or better, as determined by the state teacher evaluation system.

“However, APS is ultimately responsible for the implementation of each item,” PED said in its letters.

Ruszkowski told the Journal that APS will not get another chance to alter the plans. He said the district must fully accept the plans and commit to putting them into effect or the PED will select other options, which could result in closures.

Hawthorne Elementary School was also labeled as an MRI school, but the PED rejected APS plans to restructure and redesign that school.

Hawthorne was instead required to “champion and provide choice” – meaning the school outlines all existing schooling options for parents, makes sure parents are informed of higher-performing schools their children may attend in the area and helps transfer students, if needed.

APS acknowledged the PED’s decision on Hawthorne earlier this month but also outlined its intentions to redesign the school while still complying with the champion and provide choice mandate.

The PED is expected to provide more information regarding Hawthorne later this week.

Dulce Elementary School – another MRI school, in northern New Mexico – is awaiting a response from PED on its restructuring plans, which is also expected to come this week.

The APS and Dulce districts were offered four options when informed of their schools’ MRI designations: close the school, restart as a charter school, champion and provide choice, or restructure and redesign.

Both districts had chosen restructure and redesign for their schools.