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.
So which schools earned the A’s and B’s? A quick look at the map displays a little fairy ring of four schools along the Plaza and Santa Fe’s wealthy east side that are considered effective institutions for learning. St. Francis Drive, the north-south highway that bisects town, divides schools that are succeeding from schools that are not. Four of the five elementary schools on the east side of St. Francis scored an A or a B last year, while only three out of 12 on the west side did. And this situation is not unique to Santa Fe. It’s Opportunity Gap 101: In almost every municipal area in the country, where students live drives the kind of education they will receive and, ultimately, the choices they have in life.
In Santa Fe, the opportunity gap manifests as a yawning divide. In the four elementary schools east of St. Francis that received A’s or a B last year, nearly half the student body is white and one-quarter receives free or reduced-price lunch. Move a few blocks west and the narrative flips. Ninety-four percent of west-side D or F elementary school students are children of color. Ninety-five percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The Cliffs Notes version: If you are white or wealthy, you have a significantly better chance of receiving a quality public education, here as elsewhere.
‘Tale of two cities’
The story of Santa Fe has been referred to as a “tale of two cities.” The folks living in neighborhoods like Downtown and Canyon Road are older, whiter and wealthier, and have three times the median income of people living in many neighborhoods west of St. Francis. Neighborhood zoning means that students go to school near where they live, but most families simply cannot afford to live near the good schools. And with median home prices in Santa Fe hitting record levels in 2018, occasions to “cross over” are scarcer than ever before. Add to this the fact that many families don’t know about differences in school quality and you get kiddos who pretty much stay where they are.
I think about this situation every day, as the secretaries at my school scramble to staff unfilled positions with substitutes and teacher’s aides. I think about it while reviewing student data that tells the same story, standardized test after standardized test. I think about it while watching the kids play at recess, the Jemez Mountains providing a scenic backdrop. And I think about it when dealing with behaviors of the middle-schoolers who are old enough to realize they’ve been dealt a bad hand and are smart enough to be angry about it.
In 1607, New Mexico’s second Spanish governor, Don Pedro de Peralta, founded a “new city” on Indigenous Tanoan land at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From that moment of christening, Santa Fe, or “Holy Faith,” became a site for struggle, for subjugation, and for incredible resilience. The history here is present and ubiquitous. Many of my students carry the names of these early Spanish settlers: DeVargas and Baca, Chavez and Lujan and Salazar. Other students have relatives who attended the Santa Fe Indian School on Cerrillos Road during the Boarding School Era, when the school operated under the assimilative mission, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” The story of Santa Fe and Santa Fe Public Schools, like everything I suppose, is a story of power: who has it and who doesn’t.
The tangled web of factors that influence school performance is matched by the complexity of statutes and directives that compose education policy in our country. In the past few months, New Mexico’s new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, D, has initiated sweeping reforms to public school education, including replacement of the annual statewide assessment and changes to teacher evaluation processes. I am hopeful this enhanced commitment to public education at the highest levels of state government will empower and inspire administrators and educators to do whatever they can to correct the inequities. Time will tell. What I do know for sure is my students: They’re smart, they’re funny, they’re full of potential, and they deserve so much more than a school that seems to limp by, directionless, from year to year.
So, next time you visit Santa Fe, enjoy the splendid vistas, and go ahead and buy the boots. But then head west. Take a drive down Agua Fria, where students inevitably and intimately learn the ABCs of our state of education, starting with “A is for Address.”
Shannon Whitney is an elementary educator in Santa Fe. This article was originally published in High Country News (hcn.org) on March 11.