Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
JoAnn Mitchell is an “Equalizer.” Not the Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah Hollywood version who uses vigilante justice to rescue people, but one who believes a quality education is the “equalizer” for kids born into poverty.
She should know.
Born in upstate New York into a family of Italian immigrants with domestic violence at home, Mitchell says she grew up in extreme poverty. “My grandmother was straight from Italy and didn’t speak English. My mom was a teen parent who couldn’t read and who never graduated high school. It was hard for her (mom) to leave a bad situation.”
It was education, Mitchell said, that allowed her to break the cycle — something she has done in a big way.
A 25-year teacher, school psychologist and administrator who has taught elementary school, worked as a principal in public schools and at a juvenile detention facility, and tutored inmates in a maximum security prison in New York, Mitchell nine years ago founded the Mission Achievement and Success Charter School in Albuquerque with the goal of educating kids from underserved communities.
“About 85% to 90% of our students are in poverty. About 85% to 90% are minority, predominately Hispanic,” Mitchell said. “Fifty percent of our students would be first generation high school graduates and 90% would be first generation college graduates.”
MAS opened in August 2012 with 100 sixth and seventh graders and 10 staff members and now stands at 2,200 students with more than 180 instructional staff on two campuses. There are hundreds of kids on a waiting list.
The school’s state “cohort” four-year graduation rate is 90.5%, according to Mitchell, compared with a state average of 76.9%.
All 73 students who began their senior year at MAS last year graduated and were accepted into college or the military (military about 10%). Most of its high school students take dual credit classes.
While some kids move to other schools or cities along the way, or perhaps leave to play sports MAS doesn’t offer, Mitchell says there is a targeted effort to make sure they don’t just quit.
“If a kid leaves here between grades 9-12 we do a lot of investigative work into why. Why are you leaving? Where are you going? We’ll do everything we can to convince them to stay.”
As for student achievement, the school’s website shows literacy proficiency for second grade was 78% in 2018-19. That compares with 36% for Albuquerque Public Schools overall. Eighth-grade math? 49% proficient at MAS compared with 9% at APS.
Mitchell’s philosophy and approach is reflected in the school’s mission statement: “MAS believes all children, regardless of race, economic status, or past education experiences can succeed if they have access to a great education.”
It’s what she calls a “no excuses, whatever it takes” attitude to make sure MAS students “not only earn a high school diploma but possess the skills to succeed in college and a competitive world.”
Mitchell, who has the title “CEO” on the door of her relatively Spartan office, spoke to the business group Economic Forum of Albuquerque last week and has made it a priority to remove obstacles to kids from struggling families.
The school has a highly structured environment and a longer school day. It offers free uniforms, free meals and snacks, free school supplies, free before and after school programs, free monthly food pantry for MAS families, free dental clinics that provide cleanings, fillings and sealants, free SAT prep and college entrance exams and even free college trips.
“We don’t want there to be a financial obstacle for kids to come to our school,” she said. “We added before and after programs because so many of our families needed that extra support. Kids shouldn’t not have this as an option because families can’t afford this stuff.”
As for the college trips, “We feel they are important for a kid to embrace college, especially a first generation kid who has no idea. For struggling families if the choice is a college trip or food or gas, the money goes to those essentials.”
“We expose the kids to UNM and CNM but also New Mexico State, Eastern, Western and Highlands. Sometimes kids don’t even know these places exist, that these opportunities are there.”
Virtually all of the funding for MAS comes through the state formula based on the number of students along with some “grants and creative budgeting.” “We aren’t top heavy and we try to make sure none of our kids pay.”
Mitchell knows first-hand about struggling families.
She grew up in a home that “was a charity of the Catholic Church, which paid for us to go to Catholic school (through eighth grade.) I believe it was education that helped me break the cycle and I’m thankful for the opportunity. I really see education as an opportunity. It can be a life changer.”
She earned a B.S. in Elementary Education and Psychology from Elmira College in New York, her M.Ed and Ed.S in School Psychology at Georgia State University and a certificate in advanced study in school administration from Cortland State University.
Mitchell was first exposed to Albuquerque when her then-husband played professional hockey for the New Mexico Scorpions and they lived here on a couple of occasions as the hockey team struggled with an on-and-off existence. She still had a house in Albuquerque — she had worked for APS — and moved here for good in 2011 with the intent of opening MAS.
“Of the places I had lived and worked including Harlem and the South Bronx I found the need for education so profound here. In those places attendance was better and the education system stronger.”
She has an 11-year-old son who attends MAS and two daughters, 22 and 19, who graduated from the school. One is on track to graduate from UNM, the other is in nursing school.
A stylish dresser who warms enthusiastically to the subject of kids and education, Mitchell describes herself as an introvert at heart. She likes to get up at 4:30 a.m. to work out and meditate.
For fun, “I love to curl up with a book or go to training seminars.” She’s a big fan of Broadway shows, in New York or Popejoy. But she finds being alone a time to re-fuel. “I’ll go out to eat alone. I’ll take vacations alone.”
As for her professional life dedicated to underserved kids and the problems they face, she says, “My personal background feeds a lot of what I do. I saw it first hand.”
Longer school days
The school day at MAS runs from 8:20 a.m. to 4:20 p.m., longer than most traditional public schools in New Mexico.
In pre-K through fourth grade, classes can be as large as 30 kids but there are two teachers. “We do a full inclusion model with one teacher doing the main instruction and the second teacher in the room is often a special ed teacher working with the identical lesson offering side-by-side support. Sometimes we have kids struggling and this is how we try to keep them from slipping through the cracks.”
There is a major focus on reading in the early grades with three separate 90-minute reading sessions a day and phonics isn’t overlooked. “We find that with middle and high school kids when you assess down you often find they don’t have the phonics skills,” she said.
There are similar approaches to math. Science and the arts are included. There is no traditional “recess” but there are supervised physical education activities.
MAS students and teachers, many of whom have alternative licenses (meaning they earned degrees in something other than education before getting teaching credentials) put in a long day. Mitchell said teachers tend to earn more money than their APS counterparts, but work longer.
“It 100% comes down to teachers in classrooms. There is a craft to this,” Mitchell said. “We do pay more but it’s a longer day and a longer year. Our teachers are on a 198-day contract with 15 of those days for professional development.”
Although the Legislature has allocated money for extended learning, Mitchell said that doesn’t include the extended learning in the longer school day at MAS — something she disagrees with.
The state has a teacher shortage and MAS has hired a number of teachers on JI and H1B visas to the U.S. There are faculty members from India, the Philippines, Dubai and Jamaica among others.
“If you look around it’s cool. There are people from all over. It adds diversity. In many cases they aren’t used to dealing with discipline so sometimes there is a bit of a culture shock. But I’ve been so impressed with their work ethic. They are professional teachers and are very passionate about what they are doing.”
Charters = choice
In addition to no funding for longer school days, MAS lost a chunk of money for its six school buses that take kids to and from the original campus on Yale in Southeast Albuquerque (pre-K through 12) and the new Coors Road campus (pre-K through seventh with plans to scale up).
When enrollment hit a certain size, MAS was no longer considered “rural.” The net effect: More kids riding the bus meant less bus money from the state.
“I’ve been in education for years but have never been this close to the politics of it. I guess I was shielded. Sometimes to me it’s like ‘This just works for kids so why is there red tape?'”
Mitchell says one argument you hear against charter schools is they take money from traditional public schools.
“To me, the real fallacy of that is that the money follows the child, whether they go to a charter or public school the money goes with them. But it’s almost as if there is supposed to be a monopoly on kids when you use that language. Charters were started for school choice, particularly in communities where you don’t have a choice. Where if you don’t have the
financial means to send your child to a private school you are stuck with whatever school kids are zoned for and if that’s not a good school that’s still your only option.
“Families should have a choice where their children go and how they are educated.”
There is another narrative that charter schools sometimes “cherry pick” good students or that their students will do better because their families are at least “engaged” enough to send them to a charter.
“I can’t tell you how many families show up here with the kid who says he got kicked out of the last school. I don’t call that cherry picking. I call that, ‘You’ve run out of options.'”
It’s a challenge embraced by Mitchell, who earlier in her career won national recognition for starting a first-of its kind PTA in a juvenile detention center school.
Many MAS kids are from single parent homes or families where they are being raised by a grandparent, other relative or are even in foster placement.
But families don’t get a pass. “I tell parents there are three times a year I must see you in this building. A meet-and-greet event at the start of the year, and two parent-teacher conferences.” About 85% to 90% show up.
“In a way it’s a selling point. Parents like the structure, but when you show them the data the first time many families are devastated because they didn’t realize how far behind their kids were. That first conference can be hard when you tell them their student is four grades behind where he or she should be.”
“Our families are great. We might not have the traditional involvement where parents are volunteering in the office, because we have very working class families. Everything else, we force the involvement.”
Love of learning
Mitchell says “everything we do at MAS is structured. The only time a kid is unescorted is going to the bathroom. People greet them on arriving. They open the car doors. Good morning. How are you? They are escorted in, with staff stationed around the building. We don’t deal with traditional high school and middle school problems because there is so much structure.”
“It’s not prison — I’ve worked in one — but kids thrive in structure. You can’t teach in chaos.”
And MAS has a “relentless” focus when it comes to data and addressing deficiencies.
“You can’t get kids to succeed without knowing what holds them back. Tracking and data. You can’t do it any other way. It’s hard work. It’s hard to teach. But you aren’t going to just stand in front of the class, speak and think the job is done. The adults in this building need to be more accountable than the kids because, after all, they are kids.
“It’s an adult responsibility,” Mitchell said, “to ignite the love of learning.”