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New chief brings a calm, steadying hand to embattled district

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

When Raquel Reedy was a little girl growing up in an impoverished Texas border town, she loved to hear her mother recite fairy tales in Spanish – but they always ended with a twist.

Acting Superintendent of APS Raquel Reedy encourages a student working on a problem at McCollum Elementary School on Friday, Oct. 30. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Acting Superintendent of APS Raquel Reedy encourages a student working on a problem at McCollum Elementary School on Friday, Oct. 30. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Cinderella never went off with a prince to a big white castle. Instead, they enrolled in college and started careers.

“This was her way of telling me that this dream world where people live happily ever after doesn’t happen, and you really have to prepare yourself for life,” Reedy said.

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It is a lesson that has been key to her success, pushing the girl from Laredo to excel at Harvard University and build a strong reputation as an Albuquerque Public Schools administrator.

She has held the top job at APS since Aug. 31, when the Board of Education appointed her acting superintendent in the wake of Luis Valentino’s forced resignation.

The district – reeling from scandal, leadership changes and lost confidence – needed a steady hand. Many say Reedy has delivered just that.

Board members gave her glowing reviews at their meeting Nov. 4, with several pushing to make her permanent superintendent without looking at other candidates. The board will consider that option after formally evaluating Reedy in the next few months.

“We feel like we have oxygen again,” board President Don Duran said. “We are very confident with Superintendent Reedy’s leadership. She is bilingual; she is from the district; she knows teaching and learning. She is an educator and well-respected in the community.”

Rank-and-file educators are also enthusiastic, according to Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein, who has known Reedy for more than 20 years.

“At this point, teachers have been asking me if I think Raquel will be able to stay, and they seem to be very positive about that idea,” she said. “If she wants this job, I think it would be a good thing for APS to let her do it.”

Reedy did not apply when the superintendent position was open last year and declined to say whether she would accept an offer from the board. But she stressed that she doesn’t view herself as “a placeholder.”

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“I am not hesitating,” she said. “We don’t have time to wait around. Things have to be done.”

Big fish, small pond

Reedy’s path to the corner office began a world away in Laredo, a community of 250,000 that is among the poorest in the country.

The only child of divorced parents, she was very close to her mother, a special education assistant who ignited Reedy’s interest in teaching.

Always an academic overachiever, Reedy describes her childhood as happy, but sheltered.

 Acting Superintendent of APS Raquel Reedy is pictured here, age 1, with her mother, Rosenda (Chenda) Benavides, in the town of Laredo, Texas. (Courtesy of Raquel Reedy)


Acting Superintendent of APS Raquel Reedy is pictured here, age 1, with her mother, Rosenda (Chenda) Benavides, in the town of Laredo, Texas. (Courtesy of Raquel Reedy)

“I hardly left Laredo, practically,” she said. “I knew I was a big fish in a small pond.”

After high school graduation, the prospect of moving 200 miles away to the University of Texas in Austin was so intimidating that Reedy stayed in her hometown for a year of junior college before making the leap.

Her confidence got a boost when she placed third in her class on a tough exam that many of her peers at UT didn’t pass.

“That made me think maybe I could compete,” she recalled. “The light bulb went on.”

During student teaching at Austin’s School for the Blind, Reedy met a memorable little girl named Vicky.

The 7-year-old had been taken to the school from her home in Victoria, Texas, that year and labeled mentally disabled, with other teachers reporting that she couldn’t communicate. Reedy connected with the girl, who knew only Spanish, and talked to her at length, determining that she didn’t have mental disabilities.

“I think in many ways I saved her life,” said Reedy, who cited her work with the girl as one of the most satisfying experiences of her career.

Reedy completed a bachelor of science degree in elementary education, special education and bilingual education in 1973, then decided to go on for a master’s.

A letter about Harvard University’s program inspired her to apply on a lark.

Raquel Reedy is seen here at Harvard University in 1973 with her mother, Rosenda (Chenda) Benavides. Reedy, currently acting head of APS, completed her master’s at Harvard in 1974. (Courtesy of Raquel Reedy)

Raquel Reedy is seen here at Harvard University in 1973 with her mother, Rosenda (Chenda) Benavides. Reedy, currently acting head of APS, completed her master’s at Harvard in 1974. (Courtesy of Raquel Reedy)

The school accepted her with financial support, but Reedy worried about traveling so far from Texas and competing in the Ivy League. At times, the stress gave her hives.

Her decision to chance failure and enroll was life-changing, she said.

“I sat myself down and said you are going to be an 80-year-old lady in your rocking chair on the porch in Laredo and you’re going to be wondering what this would have been like,” she said. “I know our kids are faced daily with getting out of their comfort level or not. My fear is that they are not going out of their comfort level. I want them to face challenges.”

She did well and started her career in Boston Public Schools, where she pioneered a bilingual education program for visually impaired kids. At the time, the district had not identified any Spanish-speaking children with visual impairments, but Reedy knew they were being kept close to family at home.

“I would go out in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods, and I would hear, ‘Oh, Señora Rodriguez has a daughter (with visual impairments)’,” Reedy said. “I think I identified 10 or 12 kids. That is what I feel proudest of – helping those individual children. There have been other kids throughout the years. … You never forget any of them.”

Early years at APS

In 1976, Reedy’s husband, a fellow Harvard graduate, landed a job at Sandia National Laboratories, and the couple moved to Albuquerque.

Reedy joined APS the same year, beginning a steady climb up the ladder.

Her first role was as a special education teacher at Atrisco Elementary School, where she worked for two years before becoming a special education recruiter in the human resources department.

She became a parent in 1983 with the birth of her daughter, Lexi, who grew up to become a doctor in Pennsylvania.

“I told her the same fairy tales,” she said with a laugh.

Acting Superintendent of APS Raquel Reedy, top, is seen here with her daughter, Alexis Benavides Reedy, bottom left, a doctor in Pennsylvania, and mother, Rosenda (Chenda) Benavides. (Courtesy of Raquel Reedy)

Acting Superintendent of APS Raquel Reedy, top, is seen here with her daughter, Alexis Benavides Reedy, bottom left, a doctor in Pennsylvania, and mother, Rosenda (Chenda) Benavides. (Courtesy of Raquel Reedy)

From 1986 to 2007, Reedy served as a principal, first at E.G. Ross Elementary School, then at Mitchell Elementary School.

Bernstein said Reedy was well-liked as a principal and knew how to work with staff.

“Teachers wanted to stay with her,” she said.

A vote of confidence also came from her fellow principals, who nominated her in 2001 to lead the Eldorado “cluster” of schools, a role that involved evaluating several principals while also running Mitchell Elementary.

Next, Reedy was appointed associate superintendent for elementary education, supervising 45 schools, helping hire principals, and acting as a liaison between them and district administrators.

“Each step of the way has been phenomenal,” she said. “APS is a big district, but it is unique and very special. Everyone knows everyone. … There has always been a real outreach and a caring atmosphere that helps you do this hard, hard, hard work of educating children.”

McCollum Elementary School principal Carrie McGill feels that this kind of long institutional history is valuable in a leader.

“She really understands Albuquerque Public Schools,” McGill said. “She gets what our problems are. I think that is really positive.”

Another skill McGill admired in Reedy is her ability to connect to others, both in person and electronically. Each week, the superintendent has been sending out an email to all APS employees with goals, updates and motivation.

McGill is so impressed with the messages that she recently contacted Reedy to thank her.

“I have been here a little over 30 years, and this is the first time I have gotten something like that from a superintendent,” she said. “It was an encouraging, morale-boosting message that, I think, makes a huge difference.”

Diane Kerschen, associate superintendent for elementary education, has worked with Reedy for more than 30 years and agreed that she has what it takes to guide the district.

Kerschen recalled her steadiness in another stressful time – the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. Reedy, then principal at Mitchell Elementary, skipped a central office meeting to stay at the school and reassure the children, Kerschen said.

“She is trustworthy; she is calm; she is smart; she is easy to work with; she is loyal – all of those great things,” Kerschen said. “She is a very calming force. … It is nice to have that calming after everything that has happened in recent years.”

APS struggled with one controversy after another during the tenures of its last two superintendents, who both resigned with large buyouts. Reedy herself said the district was in crisis when she took the helm.

Valentino had become mired in scandal less than three months into the job amid revelations that his handpicked deputy superintendent, Jason Martinez, was facing assault and child sex assault charges in Denver. Martinez, who resigned Aug. 18, never completed a mandatory district background check that would have caught his legal problems.

National media watched as the APS Board of Education debated Valentino’s future in three closed-door meetings totaling roughly 12 hours. Parents regularly protested outside the district central office to express their disgust.

In the end, Valentino received $80,000 and a positive letter of reference from the board, which did little to improve public sentiment.

Valentino’s predecessor, Winston Brooks, had resigned in 2014 for reasons the district has refused to reveal, getting a $350,000 buyout.

Future plans

For her part, Reedy is taking things “one day at a time” and carefully considering steps to improve the district.

“I am looking at all aspects,” she said. “I want to make sure that any decisions we make are not done because of pressure. I want to make sure that, when a decision is made, it is done thoughtfully, respectfully.”

Her plans include reviewing several district departments, developing an academic master plan, launching community meetings to connect with parents and investigating possible changes to APS’ leadership structure.

Reedy also hopes to build good relationships with the teachers unions, the New Mexico Public Education Department and University of New Mexico College of Education.

A lingering concern is poor teacher morale, which Reedy said is the worst she has ever seen.

“The work continues strong, but I can sense that people are a little off balance,” she said, adding that her impression is that teachers often feel overburdened, underappreciated and disenfranchised.

There is no simple solution, but Reedy believes one good change would be boosting communication among departments so they can more effectively help educators.

While she may not believe in storybook endings, Reedy takes care to highlight the positive, stressing that, throughout the ups and downs at APS, many teachers have continued to deliver in the classroom.

“Even when the crisis hit, I knew the work was being done,” she said. “APS is a great organization, one that has dedicated employees, teachers, where the children always come first.”

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