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APS superintendent: ‘We are not giving up’

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Raquel Reedy is steadfast that she will not agree to close Hawthorne Elementary School, even as the state insists school closure remains on the table.

The state Public Education Department said the decision will depend in part on the school’s latest grade, which will be announced this month. The school has been identified in need of “more rigorous intervention” due to six consecutive F school grades.

APS has used some of its own budget to renovate Hawthorne Elementary School and improve the curriculum and teaching. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal )

“Bottom line we are not giving up on the children of Hawthorne and we will not agree to closing the school,” Reedy said, emphasizing the school is crucial to the community and the stability of students. And she said she is looking at legal options if the Public Education Department tries to implement closure.

“I don’t want to go the route of having Hawthorne close, and I’m not sure the secretary-designate has the authority,” Reedy said in an interview this week with a Journal reporter and editors.

PED will wait until school grades come out before deciding what happens next at the school, according to PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski, adding what Hawthorne gets in the 2017-2018 school year is “an important part of the decision-making process at this juncture.”

The students of Hawthorne returned to school on July 30 to a renovated campus and a longer school day and academic year – all part of APS’ strategy to improve student performance.

While Reedy says she knew it was necessary to overhaul the school, she cited several concerns she had with the negotiation process with PED since the school was listed last December as needing “more rigorous intervention,” or MRI. She contended PED has changed requirements, that the process was not collaborative and that PED may be overstepping its authority.

PED, for its part, is pushing back, saying the district is focusing on the wrong things and “kicking the can down the road.”

‘Breaks my heart’

Los Padillas, Whittier and Hawthorne elementaries each were identified as MRI because of their series of F school grades. Since then, the PED and the district have been finalizing next steps for the schools.

PED eventually approved APS’ restructure and redesign plans for Los Padillas and Whittier. But Hawthorne’s plan was denied and the state required the district to do what is known as “champion and provide choice.”

That requires APS to provide information to families about higher-performing schools and to accommodate any transfers. It also said Hawthorne will close at the end of the 2020-2021 school year unless the school earns a C grade or better in the 2017-2018, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years.

“It just breaks my heart that Hawthorne of all schools was the one,” Reedy said, adding she was perplexed as to why that school was singled out when the plans for all three schools were nearly identical.

Ruszkowski rejected that confusion and asserted the district is avoiding confronting the fact that the school must show marked improvement or face possible closure.

“APS is not confused. APS is spending energy trying to misinform the public and fight the process,” he told the Journal.

Associate Superintendent Gabriella Blakey and Reedy said part of the confusion is because Hawthorne had been making strides in partnership with PED.

They noted PED’s Priority Schools Bureau had worked closely with Hawthorne for years and the deputy secretary was the principal at Hawthorne at one point. And the superintendent said the previous principal did all the measures the Priority Schools Bureau recommended.

“That team wrote letters of recommendation and encouragement to Hawthorne about how impressed with the work they were doing,” she said.

APS provided emails to the Journal that showed PED had noted the district’s hard work.

Blakey also said Hawthorne did a lot of measures Gadsden Independent School District – which PED has praised publicly for academic growth – has seen success with, specifically pointing to a data-driven strategy the school implemented.

Ruszkowski said while Hawthorne was one of many schools PED had worked with, MRI determinations were primarily based on student growth, which Hawthorne and the other MRI schools failed to show.

When PED denied the elementary school’s restructuring plans, it said there were multiple nearby schools that earned a better school grade than an F in the past year.

But Blakey said there are more higher-rated schools near Whittier than there are near Hawthorne.

Ruszkowski disputed this, saying there are 11 A and B schools within a five-mile radius of Hawthorne while there are six A and B schools within the same radius of Whittier.

“It’s odd though because there was never anything in the process or in (the Every Student Succeeds Act) that says that is an indicator of not accepting a plan,” Blakey noted.

Who has authority?

The associate superintendent said the U.S. education law Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) doesn’t outline PED’s authority to dictate an improvement option for the school. Rather, it says the department can select a plan if the district fails to do so.

“When ESSA came out we really made an effort to look at it … and we embraced it,” Reedy said.

APS isn’t alone in questioning PED’s authority in MRI procedures. The Legislative Education Study Committee also said earlier this year there are gaps in state law that make it unclear whether PED has the authority to have the final say on MRI improvement plans.

But Ruszkowski said since ESSA gives the state department the authority to deny plans, he interpreted that to mean PED has the authority to choose another improvement option for the school.

No partnership

Reedy and Blakey noted the district had only six weeks to create comprehensive plans for the three schools.

“There were over a dozen meetings (for each school) with stakeholders and teachers,” Reedy said. “The response was phenomenal.”

Throughout the planning and evaluation, Reedy emphasized that she did not feel there was a partnership with the state.

“We have really tried,” Reedy said, adding some of her questions and messages to PED have gone unanswered.

Reedy said she invited the PED secretary-designate to visit the three MRI schools eight times, but he only visited Los Padillas on the first day of school.

Ruszkowski said PED has given the district resources and references for improvement throughout the MRI process.

“Their definition of collaboration would be NMPED looking the other way,” he said.

APS also said there have been alterations throughout the planning, and said PED changed the closure stipulation for Hawthorne several times. APS said the wording at first sounded like closing was an option, even if certain measures were not met. It said the final letter made it clear closure would be mandatory at the end of the subsequent school year if it gets an F school grade in the 2017-2018 or 2018-2019 school years.

Ruszkowski said closure was always mandated if certain school performance did not improve, but that the closure scenario became more likely as time went on.

Reedy again said she will not sign PED’s plan for the school as long as closure is a possibility.