Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It took a few months for Angelina Brito to find out her daughter did not get accepted.
She was one of hundreds of parents who applied for their student to transfer into Los Alamos Public Schools, one of the top districts in the state. Like many parents who go through the process, Brito resides in the Española Valley, just a 25-minute drive from the center of Los Alamos.
Brito said she wanted her daughter to start middle school in Los Alamos, a district with many more resources for kids and higher educational outcomes than in surrounding districts.
“There’s a major difference,” she said, adding there are more sports and clubs.
Many parents have the same point of view. There were 347 transfer applications for Los Alamos for the 2019-20 school year, 97 of which were accepted, according to Los Alamos Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Guy. Such numbers are common year-to-year.
A huge number of applications has resulted in a waiting list for nearly every grade, with the middle and high schools accepting fewer students due to their large enrollments.
Those who are accepted come from many districts in New Mexico. Most drive in from Española and Santa Fe, but district records show some families travel from as far away as Los Lunas and Gallina, a trip of multiple hours.
Many parents drop off students on their way to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, while some kids take the public bus early in the morning each day to Los Alamos, where the average worker earns more than three times what someone in Española makes.
But while students in Los Alamos outperform nearby districts, the full benefits of that education are not felt by everyone.
On average, out-of-district students are less likely to be enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) classes and gifted programs, and likely to score lower on such exams as the PSAT, according to three years of records maintained by the district.
Seventy-six percent of these students are also Hispanic, another group facing gaps in achievement compared to their peers from Los Alamos County, where Hispanics make up just 19% of the population.
Brito still wants to apply again for her daughter to transfer. Her determination stems from her own time at Española Valley High School, when her counselor encouraged her to drop out.
“This was my counselor that I had since 7th grade all the way to my senior year,” Brito said. “She told me to drop out, that I would never make it in life.
“I don’t want (my daughter) to be in that position.”
‘The same opportunities’
In total, the nearly 600 out-of-district students in Los Alamos comprise 16% of the district’s enrollment, according to 2019-20 figures.
Los Alamos Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus told the Journal that once a student is accepted into the district, they are supported just like any other child.
“They have the same opportunities as everyone else,” he said.
Yet, these same students tend to fall behind their in-district peers and don’t participate in certain academic programs at the same rate.
From 2017 to 2020, out-of-district students made up only 8% of students in AP courses and 7% of those enrolled in the district’s gifted program, Gifted and Talented Education (GATE).
Students living within Los Alamos County scored an average of 1,029 on practice SATs, while out-of-district students scored 914.
With AP courses, the numbers continue to decline for students who take more than one in a school year.
An average of 68 in-district students took three or more AP classes each year, with some taking as many as six – only one out-of-district student took three AP classes during that period.
Jaap Gardner, a mother of two Los Alamos students from Española, said she had to ask for her daughter to be tested for GATE, adding many kids get overlooked if you don’t ask and that few parents in the Valley know how.
“We don’t really know how, we’re just trying to figure it out,” she said.
AP courses can increase a student’s chance of getting admitted to and being successful in college, according to a study by the Education Trust.
The reasons for the wide gap can be attributed, in large part, to the academic standards of the schools the students transfer from, according to those with ties to the district.
Los Alamos has higher test scores, graduation rates and student outcomes than many surrounding districts. Fourty-seven percent of Los Alamos students tested proficient in math, compared to just 10% in nearby Española.
Los Alamos School Board Member Dawn Jalbert, a former teacher in the district, said many out-of-district students face difficulty adjusting to Los Alamos’ rigorous curriculum, especially if they wait to transfer.
“Kids who are older that come into the district struggle more,” she said. “These schools can be tough.”
Students interviewed for this story agreed an education in Los Alamos can be intense.
Los Alamos High School Senior Isaac Romero, of Española, described his first day at the middle school as “nerve-wracking.” He’s been academically successful at Los Alamos, but still had to make a transition at first.
“It was a completely different experience than what I was used to,” he said, adding his previous time at a private school helped him adjust.
Superintendent Steinhaus said kids who are struggling can rely on a series of counselors, tutors and other support staff to catch up. Romero said he likes all those features, but has noticed other students from the Valley who find it hard to keep up.
“I have noticed a lot of kids from the Valley, the Los Alamos Public Schools system does put them into slower-paced classes,” he said, adding he doesn’t see many taking AP classes like him.
Stephen Boerigter, another school board member, said he’s not surprised students from low-performing schools have difficulty adjusting, but that there’s no easy fix.
“Could we do something? I think the answer to that is technically yes,” he said. “But it’s then extremely difficult to execute.”
Los Alamos schools have accepted out-of-district students for decades, but it’s only in recent years that the number accepted grew exponentially.
The number of out-of-district transfers accepted increased by 123% to 575 from 2006 to 2016, according to the district’s 2019 Facilities Master Plan. That rise occurred as the number of in-district students dropped steadily during the same period.
In New Mexico, student enrollment plays a large factor in the amount of funds the state distributes to a district. Some district officials said accepting more students helped offset the losses of fewer students from Los Alamos, a trend that has begun to reverse in recent years.
“As long as you’re not responsible for transportation, it behooves a district to encourage out-of-district students to come in, because their student money follows them,” Jalbert said.
Boerigter agreed that out-of-district students are often used as way to manage enrollment, while Steinhaus said that wasn’t the case.
The vast majority of those accepted though share two traits: they’re from the Española Valley and they’re Hispanic, a population that also sees achievement gaps in Los Alamos.
A study by ProPublica found that 32% of Los Alamos students are Hispanic, but they comprise 15% of those in AP courses and 13% of those in GATE.
By comparison, around 60% of the district’s students are white and white students comprise about 70% of enrollment in AP and gifted programs.
The Education Trust study found Latino and Black students often lack the same access to advanced classes and therefore participate at lower rates. It found racially diverse schools are especially likely to deny these students access.
Los Alamos Student Services Director Karla Crane said there is a gap for Hispanic students in GATE, and that the district is working on training teachers to better recognize gifted students in that population.
But those differences don’t always remain within the walls of a classroom.
Struggling with stereotypes
The Española Valley has long struggled with high rates of drug overdose and poverty, and the stereotypes associated with those realities.
Several out-of-district students interviewed for this article said it can be difficult overcoming those stereotypes, some of which are more racist than others.
One student said a teacher told him he had “a Los Alamos work ethic.” Another Hispanic student with light skin was told he didn’t look like he was from Española. One girl said no one would sit with her on her first day in Los Alamos because she was from the Valley.
Española City Councilor John Ramon Vigil went to school in Los Alamos for three years and said a small group of students often made derogatory comments to him.
“That was very hurtful, hearing comments like ‘it’s not safe’ or ‘isn’t there a lot of drugs in Española,’ ” he said.
He said he enjoyed Los Alamos, but transferred back to Española before his sophomore year.
“I never felt I could be embraced by that school as I would be in my hometown,” he said.
When Rita Sanchez began teaching Spanish at Los Alamos Middle School 35 years ago, she and the janitor were the only Hispanics on staff.
That number has grown over the years, but Sanchez, who is retired and lives just outside Española, said she saw many instances of out-of-district and Hispanic kids being picked on – including her own children.
“(My son) told me he experienced a little bit of racism,” she said. “My daughter said, ‘Yeah Mom, how can you not figure it out?’ ”
Over the years, many out-of-district students would come to her for help, either because they had trouble in class or fitting in.
“They knew that I would back them up and that I was one of them,” she said.
When asked if he was aware of transfer students having difficulty fitting it in, Steinhaus said it wasn’t a problem in his district.
“That’s not an issue,” he said, later modifying his answer. “We are aware of students struggling to adjust and we take it one student at a time.”
Assistant Superintendent Guy added that issues of fitting in or kids being bullied for where they’re from happen across the district, not just with transfer students.
Soumyo Lahiri-Gupta, a Los Alamos graduate who grew up in the area, said it was common for students to associate Hispanic people with drug dealers.
“I recognize it’s very toxic behavior, but no one checks on that in the school system,” he said. “No one tries to talk to us about racial issues at all.”
Sanchez said she was intimidated when talking to parents, even as a seasoned educator.
“They’re all really, really tall and really, really smart – and it intimidated me,” she said. “It was the dumbest thing ever, but it’s kind of how I felt.”
‘Not an accident’
Nearly all transfer students interviewed said they enjoyed going to school in Los Alamos and would choose the district again. Teachers and parents agreed it provided an excellent education.
But many of those same students recognized that, for a transfer student, that educational experience can be very different.
Whether it’s taking a public bus to school before 7 a.m., taking fewer AP courses or dealing with comments from students, the differences can be pronounced. Students said their closest friends also live out of the district and the groups stay relatively to themselves.
Still, they say the sheer increase in educational opportunities are worth any additional struggle.
“Los Alamos is an advanced way of learning,” said Romero, who plans on studying chemical engineering at the University of New Mexico.
Some districts officials also mentioned they knew many out-of-district students who had succeeded in Los Alamos.
Dan Losen, director for Civil Rights Remedies, has spent his career studying equity issues in education, and said disparities for Black and Latino students is an unfortunately widespread trend. He also said it’s not normal to have wealthy school districts right next to poor ones.
“There’s a whole slew of reasons for why there are wealthy communities that are self-contained next to poor communities,” Losen said. “It’s not an accident and it’s often not because people chose not to live in the nicer place.”