RR principals worry over low math scores, behavior issues

Christine Prescott

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Mental health and math proficiency were the common denominators — pun intended — during a 4½-hour meeting of the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education Monday afternoon.

It was the first of two meetings in which the district’s principals from 19 schools and the Secondary Learning Center gave reports on the just-completed school year. The board will hear reports from the remaining nine schools — eight elementaries and Cleveland High — Monday at 1. “Highlights” from each school, in the order the principals spoke, were:

Rio Rancho Middle School: Principal Lynda Kitts touted her school’s three consecutive “A” grades from the state Public Education Department and a visit by nationally renowned motivational speaker Gerry Brooks.

He entertained about 1,100 area educators as he encouraged them to improve instruction through personal climate and culture strategies, and helped administrators focus on how to lead all staff in a positive and constructive manner.

Kitts said there had been little turnover on her staff, a real plus, but she had a “difficult time getting parents involved.”

And, she concluded, “In some cases, we’re the best things that happen to these kids all day long.”

Independence High School: Principal Sue Carley said she wanted her school to have a new slogan, namely, “We’re all about acceleration and not remediation.”

She was happy with the improved graduation rates at her school. Carley told the board she was proud of feedback from IHS students that indicated the main reason they preferred IHS to their previous high school was, “You guys care and love us more.”

Knowing the school’s reputation among many, Carley contradicted it: “The majority of our students are not slackers,” she said, noting that by the end of July, her school will have graduated more than 100 students for the 2018-19 school year.

Carley, like several other principals, told the board her school needs more room for an expected increase in enrollment. Chief Academic Officer Carl Leppelman said around $22 million to $24 million would be required to build a new IHS.

Rio Rancho High School: Principal Sherri Carver told how classroom observations had been extended to not only see how the teachers were teaching but also how the students were reacting. Algebra I was “the gatekeeper,” she said, and an indicator of how students would fare.

“Ninth-graders struggling in it are likely to continue to struggle,” she said.

She added that Saturday school, with tutoring in Algebra I and II, and Chemistry, has been helpful, along with reading and math intervention classes.

A “big problem,” Carver said, was the increased usage on campus of eCigarettes, many times laced with THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a high.

“Tobacco violations tripled,” she said. “What we’re doing (to combat the problem) isn’t effective.”

Students found with tobacco are suspended.

And, she said, “Severe behavior issues continue to be a worry … (knowing) how to keep your eyes on those kids,” often unruly and capable of wreaking havoc on teachers and other students.

Echoing the common theme, she said RRHS students struggle with math. Carver said students involved in activities are more successful in school, and the new bio-medical pathway, with the addition of another teacher, “has been very successful.”

With the school having just completed its 22nd year, Carver said it needs new furniture, especially in the cafeteria, and restroom renovations.

Secondary Learning Center: It’s not a school, but rather a program, said Principal David Latham, and has helped more than 200 students recover more than 240 credits. Latham said 440 students were in summer school there last summer and 90 students are attending night school, but absenteeism has been a big problem.

“Attendance and buy-in” were the SLC’s challenges, he said: “They’ve got to be there to learn.”

Eagle Ridge Middle School: Principal Catherine Rodriguez lamented the performance of the school’s seventh-graders, but noted expectations for sixth- and eighth-graders were met.

“What needs to be done as they enter eighth grade?” she wondered, happy that five staff members had acquired their master’s degrees and the school’s “United for Community” program had proved to be very popular.

But, “Math is one of our lower points,” she said.

Overcrowding will be another, she said, for her school. It was built for 920 students and expected to have an enrollment in 2019-20 of 980, including 360 incoming sixth-graders.

Lincoln Middle School: Principal Veronica Sanders admitted she would “probably sound like a broken record,” when it came to talking about the lack of success in math.

She mentioned her school’s “need for teachers to build relationships with the kids” and how she hoped for every LMS student to “have a connection with an adult in the building,” which could include coaches, custodians, etc.

Sanders said there had been high turnover at LMS, especially in new teachers who found it a shock to be in a middle-school classroom.

But the school had overcome myriad construction challenges, including a new gymnasium, at the beginning of the school year.

“Adversity showed what a strong group of teachers LMS has; it made us stronger,” she said.

She had a theory for the trouble seen in seventh-graders: “Kids have so much going on … it’s a tough year for them. (But) eighth-graders are amazing.”

She thought the improvement was thanks to “maturity that occurred.”

She had also seen a problem with eCigs, and observed parents buying them for their students. And she had heard parents, when called about behavioral problems, tell staff to call the police.

“We need mental health resources,” Sanders said.

Mountain View Middle School: First-year Principal BJ Hartford, happy that her school received an “A” for the second year in a row, said MVMS “teachers do whatever they need to do to make sure our students are successful. … We’re doing something right: Our seventh-graders become successful in eighth grade.”

Remarking that “seventh-graders are squirrelly,” she said sixth- and seventh-grade students were below in math and she was concerned many students are losing interest in technology.

Hartford lauded various clubs at the school for “trying to get more kids involved.”

MVMS, she said, also struggles with absenteeism and may have set a district record with one student, who missed about 60 days of school in 2018-19.

“Parents know the system — and they use it,” she said.

“Building Community” is an important program at MVMS, she concluded, and “If the adults buy into our school, the kids are going to.”

Cyber Academy: First-year principal Julie Arnold, proud of a six-year streak of “A’s” at Cyber Academy, noted an increase in enrollment and graduation. Twenty-five of 26 seniors this past school year graduated, she said, anticipating 29 seniors and two “qualified” sophomores grabbing diplomas next May.

The school’s average ACT score, she said, is 23, but not all is well. Arnold told of two sixth-graders whose parents committed suicide, some students contemplating suicide and some with parents in prison.

“We have homeless living behind our Dumpster,” she added.

Arnold also expressed hope to see the school expand its quarters or get a larger location.

Trent Heffner

Vista Grande Elementary: Outgoing Principal Trent Heffner, who’s headed to Joe Harris Elementary, opening in August 2020, garnered the most laughs of the afternoon when he told about his school community attracted to the school fair by “a seven-foot man-eating chicken.” Punctuation makes a difference: It’s really a seven-foot man eating chicken.

Heffner, close to seven feet tall, said the kids are disappointed, but the parents find it hilarious.

Vista Grande students focus on math reasoning, he said, in an attempt to get them through the subject. Students explain how they solved the problem, rather than merely solving it.

Heffner also touted his school winning the district’s reading challenge, and the students and staff raising more than $8,000 for medical expenses for a critically ill student.

“Students are in need of behavioral intervention,” he added.

Sandia Vista Elementary: Principal Pat Di Vasto credited her assistant principal, Miranda Jeantete, for keeping the school on the rails when Di Vasto missed the first four months of the school year due to medical problems.

In recent years, the school has risen from a “D” to an “A,” and Di Vasto said she was “real proud of that success in math.”

She said her school is a hybrid-Montessori school and hosts Desert Sunrise, in which special education students are bused from all over the district into SV Elementary classrooms.

Also, the school is vested with the Garza McDonald’s enterprise, “creating a national template with Ronald McDonald House,” she said. She noted the school’s “Penny Wars” to raise money for Ronald McDonald House and a toiletry drive to aid it.

Sandia Vista also has a grandparent volunteer program, Di Vasto said.

Having special award days at her school isn’t happening: “I believe in teaching children good things just for the sake of doing them,” she said. “You don’t always get prizes in life.”

Shining Stars Preschool: Principal Kim Johns’s biggest problem has been having enough room for the burgeoning student population, which she said went from 542 to 660 students during the 2018-19 school year. In August, 442 of them are heading to kindergarten.

Parents on the lengthy waiting list aren’t happy.

The school, for children ages 3-5, readily accepts special-needs students but has a lottery for general-education kids, with a 50-50 split between those populations. Half of them attend in the morning and half in the afternoon.

Shining Star’s focus, Johns said, is to “reduce the gap between preschool and kindergarten … focus on getting these kids school-ready and address social-emotional needs.”

In the recent past, 13 one-time educational assistants have become certified teachers there.

“We have grown our own,” Johns said.

Distressing to board Vice President Ramon Montaño was the fact that the new Shining Stars Preschool, which had its ceremonial groundbreaking last month, won’t have a library, art room and multi-purpose room, all of which were slashed from the plans due to finances.

“I’m not happy with that,” Montaño said. “The board needs to be made aware of cuts. We knew what the challenges were at $15.5 million.”

At a future school board meeting, the top five needs of every school will have been ranked and the facilities department will have an estimated cost to take care of those needs, if possible.

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