ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Alexandria Martinez and Selena de Vargas are just starting fifth grade, and, like most kids, they’re excited and nervous about the school year.
But on top of the rush to buy supplies and settle into new classrooms, the two petite, dark-haired girls are navigating some unusual changes.
The pair are among roughly 60 students who recently transferred to Oñate Elementary at 12415 Brentwood Hills NE from neighboring Acoma Elementary as part of a school consolidation to address low enrollment numbers.
Last year, Acoma had only 110 students, down from around 200 in 2010; Oñate has seen similar declines.
In response, Albuquerque Public Schools decided to shutter Acoma, the first school closure in decades. The building at 11800 Princess Jeanne Ave. NE was remodeled and leased to a charter, the Public Academy for Performing Arts, netting APS about $1 million a year.
Most Acoma students ended up at Oñate, but some transferred to charters or moved out of the area.
It was bittersweet for Acoma’s community, which said goodbye to the 57-year-old school at a party in May.
“I miss Acoma because I was there for so long,” Martinez said. “I had been there since kindergarten, so it was kind of hard for me to move. … It was like a second home for me – I had so many amazing teachers and good friends.”
On the bright side, she enjoys riding the bus to Oñate and has already started connecting with other kids. Her new school is on a year-round schedule, so classes began July 21, with two-week breaks in October and March. Traditional APS schools start Thursday, Aug. 11.
Fifth-graders Andrew Silva and Jazlyn Childers, longtime Oñate students, said they have tried to welcome their new classmates from Acoma.
Oñate principal Theresa Fullerton agreed that the integration has gone well.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “The students have mixed together; you can’t tell them apart.”
Fullerton has a long history at the school. She began her career there as a teacher in 1978 and rose to principal in 1993. Six years ago, she also became Acoma’s principal, pulling double-duty at the two schools.
This summer, she guided each step of the school consolidation, an arduous process that included cataloging and transferring hundreds of library books, smartboards and computers between the two buildings.
Still to come is construction on a $3.3 million classroom block and kitchen remodel that will be funded by February’s $575 million bond and mill levy election.
Margaret Metcalf-Watson, an instructional coach and math interventionist who came to Oñate after 18 years at Acoma, lauded Fullerton for her support and understanding throughout the consolidation process.
“Her understanding and wisdom made up for a lot,” Metcalf-Watson said. “She definitely put herself in our shoes over there.”
Fullerton, in turn, gave the credit to her teachers.
“As I look back over the six years, I think the Acoma and Oñate staffs have been such role models,” she said.
APS officials and board members have talked about the need to close more schools on the east side, and Fullerton hopes Acoma and Oñate can be an example of the process.
She kept detailed notes of each step in the consolidation and turned them over to the district’s facilities office.
“My guess is this will happen again, and I hope the district chooses to look at both schools and their communities – it can be done and it can be done well,” Fullerton said.
The force behind the changes is a demographic shift that is overcrowding the West Side, while East Side classrooms sit empty.
APS’ largest upcoming bond project is a new $50 million Northwest K-8 school that will draw students from Painted Sky Elementary School and Jimmy Carter Middle School.
Family School West Side, an $8.4 million facility that will offer a mix of home-school and classroom time, is also in the works.
Overall, APS’ enrollment has fallen, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. More than 90,000 students were in the district in 2010, compared with 85,000 last year, and the number could drop below 80,000 by 2020, according to district projections.
Administrators cite a variety of reasons, including charter school growth and migration out of state.