Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Until recently, Chris Jones would get the same response when he told people where he worked.
“I would tell them and they would say, ‘Oh that’s trouble isn’t it? Are you guys still around?’ ” he said.
That’s because Jones is the head administrator of Albuquerque Bilingual Academy, formerly La Promesa Early Learning Center.
Earlier this year, the school changed its name to try to distance itself from a reputation of fiscal problems and a scandal involving alleged embezzlement.
“No more questions of ‘What’s going on currently?’ ” Jones said. “Now, it’s more positive, and we are just trying to rebuild from here.”
Jones inherited his leadership responsibility after the school was under scrutiny because of founder and former Albuquerque Public Schools board member Analee Maestas.
In 2016 it came to light that the school submitted a suspicious receipt for reimbursement. Maestas claimed the $342 invoice was for carpet cleaning at the school, but the invoice looked like it had been written over, and the cleaning company reported that it actually worked on ducts at Maestas’ home.
Prosecutors are still considering whether they will move forward with charges against her, according to District Attorney’s Office spokesman Michael Patrick. Maestas has denied any wrongdoing.
Another review by the Office of the State Auditor in 2017 said it appeared the former assistant business manager at the school – identified as Maestas’ daughter Julieanne Maestas – diverted roughly $500,000 from the school into her personal bank account. In addition, she is said to have deposited about $177,000 worth of questionable checks. Patrick said her role is still being investigated, and she hasn’t been formally charged with anything.
After the embezzlement allegations, the school’s finances were taken over by the state education department and it was placed on a corrective action plan by its authorizer, which outlined stipulations the school had to meet or face revocation.
Jones took on leading the school despite the fact that he was initially going to work there temporarily.
“I came back to help as a principal, but I also came back to open my own school, so it was supposed to be short -term,” he said.
Jones was supposed to help in an instructional revamp. He had been on board for a little over a month before the findings came to light.
“I didn’t expect any of that to happen,” he said.
But when the school’s fate was uncertain, Jones decided to stay on.
Fast forward to 2019. The school has met all the components of the corrective plan, has rebranded and is trying to create a new reputation.
Jones said the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade charter school is no longer affiliated with the Maestas family. That was a requirement of the corrective action plan, he said.
“We had to provide evidence that there was no affiliation,”Jones said.
Patricia Gipson, chair of the school’s authorizer, the Public Education Commission, confirmed to the Journal that the school made assurances that it did not hire any relatives of Maestas.
There have been other changes at the school.
It went from an F school grade to a C in the 2017-18 school year, another corrective requirement.
To get there, Jones said, the school revamped its academic strategy.
“We have implemented social and emotional learning programs and supports since 2017. This includes a formal curriculum known as ‘Move This World,’ a full-time social worker, a part-time student success adviser and other wellness initiatives,” he said.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the school was in the middle of an academic-goal-setting assembly where kids were encouraged to “know their numbers” – as in know what their scores are on the school’s interim, standardized test.
Jones told the Journal that students as young as kindergartners learn how they did on the test and work to meet a benchmark by year’s end.
The standard is to measure at grade level or to see 1.5 years of growth in a school year. In the 2018-19 school year, 79% of students met standards in math and about 82% met standards in reading on the Northwest Evaluation Association Map assessment.
NWEA is an interim exam that the school uses to adjust classroom instruction, separate from the state-required test.
“For us, this is how we monitor if we are going to be on track to meeting the big high-stakes assessment at the end of the year,” Jones said.
He said it’s “pretty comparable” to a test such as PARCC.
“They tend to need a higher score (to be proficient on PARCC),” he said.
Gipson gave kudos to the school, saying it has been compliant, and it improved testing results.
“More importantly, they have worked to continue their commitment to the families in the community and meet the needs of the students they serve,” she said in an email to the Journal.
The entire school operates on a bilingual model: 50% of the day in English and 50% in Spanish.
Vilma Sarmiento, who teaches math, language arts and social studies in Spanish, said she has witnessed shifts at the school.
She has been there for about five years, both when it was La Promesa and currently.
Sarmiento said there are now more resources, professional development and structure, as well as higher expectations.
“There are more resources: computers, furniture and a lot of training,” she said.
As for finances, Jones said there are more checks and balances.
“We have a contracted business manager. We’ve gone through the Vigil Group, a pretty notable business management organization, and the state actually assigns them to help troubled schools,” he said.
Purchasing and reimbursement policies have been updated to require more stringent processes, and school leaders were trained, Jones said.
“We had too many people touching checks, and we had too many people that were streamlining their own process when it comes to approval of things,” he said.
The school has since recovered over $650,000 through an insurance claim.
While it’s made modifications, the school is still feeling the effects of its history.
It lost about 100 students after the investigations.
“In 2017 at the beginning of the school year, we were up to 407 students split between two campuses so we did have a sharp decline in student enrollment,” he said.
With 388 students this school year, Jones is aiming to get enrollment and public perception back to where the school was before the scandal.
Jones hopes the changes and new name give the school a fresh start, especially with its charter renewal slated for early December.
“It isn’t the same school it was before,” he said.