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Editorial: Better Graduation Rates Show Promise of Reform

It is significant — and welcome news — that New Mexico’s high school graduation rate has jumped to 70 percent.

It’s significant because now, instead of 6.3, seven out of 10 students in the Land of Enchantment get a diploma in four years.

And it’s significant because it shows what can happen when a state focuses on a problem and works to address it.

Imagine what that number will be if and when education reform really takes hold — when excellent teachers who produce results are valued and rewarded, when elementary school literacy becomes standard operating procedure.

That was the underlying message coming from Gov. Susana Martinez — and, though in part and not as directly, from Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks.

APS recorded similar graduation improvement, with a 70 percent graduation rate dipping to 65 percent when all district-authorized charter schools are included.

Martinez says: “It is a big step, but it’s far from the last step. Our graduation rate of 70 percent is a mile marker — a significant one — in a much longer journey. But it still means that three out of every 10 students are not making it to the graduation finish line.”

Brooks says: “Even though we’re very happy about this, because we’ve been working a long time to get over that 70 percent hump, we’ve already set a new target, and that’s 75 percent. And I want to hit 75 within the next three years.”

One aside: While Brooks is right to want a graduation rate calculated on the district’s traditional schools, it is vital to also have a rate that includes the district’s non-traditional charters. It is unconscionable to disregard the state’s responsibility to educate all of its students, whether they attend classes at Sandia or Cibola or the detention center or Memorial Hospital. As Bruce Hegwer, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, points out, “these charter schools … are addressing the needs of students who APS was not able to serve at one time or other.”

Applause also goes to Rio Rancho’s V. Sue Cleveland High, which recorded the second-highest graduation rate in the state for large, traditional high schools at 90.1 percent. Lovington High ranked first.

APS’ West Mesa, where about three-quarters of students are from low-income families, improved its graduation rate from 58.2 percent in 2011 to 70 percent last year. Brooks says “we’re going to find out what happened at these places that had great results. I want to replicate some of the things that have happened at West Mesa.”

One thing that happened there, according to Brooks, is the strong leadership of principal Ben Santistevan. It is yet another New Mexico example of a charismatic leader improving a school in spite of the status-quo excuses of students who are poor minorities. And it is another example of why the Legislature should codify the policy of evaluating and rewarding teachers and school leaders in part on student achievement.

Brooks says “people feel more accountable than they probably ever have before, and I give (the Public Education Department) a lot of credit for that.”

PED and Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera do deserve credit, as do all the teachers and administrators who have embraced changes that put student achievement first.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.