I live in Santa Fe, a city known for its turquoise jewelry, red and green chile sauces, and high desert air. In the historic Plaza District, intrepid shoppers can score a $400 poncho or a magnificent pair of designer boots. Shop windows abound with exquisitely crafted squash blossom necklaces, Zuni fetishes and Navajo rugs. On Canyon Road, visitors can browse 100 art galleries nestled in perfectly preserved adobe compounds. And in the shadow of Atalaya Mountain, St. John’s College – with its 7-to-1 faculty-student ratio – offers a top-notch liberal arts education for $35,000 per year.
A mile and a half west of exclusive hotels like the El Dorado and La Fonda on the Plaza, I work at a high-needs school, created in 2010, when several beloved neighborhood schools were collapsed into a larger K-8 community school. Since its inception, my school has struggled to define itself. It has hosted six principals in eight years and serves as a rotating door for teachers, some of whom leave for higher-performing schools in more affluent areas of town. My students come from neighborhoods the tourists don’t visit. They occupy old one-story stucco buildings along the thoroughfares on the west side, many sharing space with multiple siblings or extended family members. They speak Spanish and English, often a mixture of both. One hundred percent of them qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
Until recently, the New Mexico Public Education Department had implemented a controversial evaluation program designed to increase transparency and hold schools accountable for performance. Schools were measured using a formula that took into account student performance, student growth, attendance rates, and parent and student satisfaction. It didn’t account for things like teacher quality, staffing consistency, family engagement, English language proficiency and student nonacademic need, but on a general level, it does tell us which schools are thriving.
For the six years the program was in place, my school never earned better than a D. This is not particularly unusual: Last school year, over half of Santa Fe’s public schools received D or F ratings. My school’s “almost C” grade for 2017-18 put us in the middle of the pack for Santa Fe Public Schools, and so it was widely celebrated as a big win. When your state is ranked last in the country for child well-being – according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropic organization dedicated to education and the welfare of children – success is measured on a relative, rather than absolute, scale.