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          Front Page

Reforms, Stipends Seem To Be Working

By Martin Salazar
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          The latest reform efforts at Rio Grande High were launched with great fanfare in the fall.
        At the heart of the reforms is Albuquerque Public Schools' offer to pay $5,000 stipends to teachers at that school and at Ernie Pyle, one of the middle schools in the Rio cluster.
        Superintendent Winston Brooks said the district is trying to attract highly experienced teachers to the schools, which have historically struggled. It's the first time APS has tried anything like this, Associate Superintendent Eddie Soto said.
        The $5,000 stipends come with a catch. Teachers at the two schools had to sign agreements to make improvements. They are required to participate in professional development, and they must undertake activities that support learning, such as tutoring, that may fall outside of the instructional day.
        Like APS' other comprehensive high schools, Rio Grande's school day has been extended to 5 p.m.
        Soto, a former Rio Grande principal, said there is more accountability now, with a mandate that the superintendent and board be given regular updates on progress.
        Brooks also brought in a new principal, Linda Torres.
        "I listen to the superintendent, and he seems to say the right things," said Flora Sanchez, a longtime South Valley resident. "But I've heard it before."
        Sanchez said it's "real hard" to turn things around.
        "I don't know if those are the right reforms, but saying they are, we've got to give it time to work," she said. "We've got to support the administrators. And the parents just have to find a way to support (the reforms) and not start getting in the way."
        Samuel Vazquez, a senior at Rio Grande, said this year is noticeably different from prior years.
        "A lot of students would ditch because nobody would check schedules," Vazquez said. "This year, they make us wear IDs. Security is a lot more strict about when people go in and out of school."
        It's not just security that has gotten stricter.
        "There are some teachers that have made changes to the classes," Vazquez said. "Like a lot of teachers (in the past) would just let us sit there and not do work." He said that's no longer the case.
        APS says preliminary indicators, after just one semester, are that the reforms are having an impact.
        Soto said a few teachers opted to leave the school, but most stayed. At the start of the school year, Rio Grande had just one vacancy, a Latin teaching position that is now filled. The year before, he said, Rio Grande started with nine substitute teachers in core academic areas.
        He said student attendance is up and so is academic performance, as indicated by the number of students academically eligible to take part in extracurricular activities, which requires a minimum 2.0 grade-point average. Torres said 1,200 students are now eligible, 500 more than each of the past six or seven years.
        Rio Grande junior Mike Griego, a wrestler, said teachers have always been good at the school. But he agreed that the school is now more strict.
        "Now the administration is taking over, finally," Griego said. "There hasn't been as much fights as usual. It's good. I think it's getting better."
        But the latest reform and leadership changes have reignited complaints that the community was not included in the decision-making.
        The state Public Education Department recently issued a decision in a filed complaint, finding APS failed to properly involve parents. The district has been ordered to take corrective action.
        Among the things APS must do is hold a public meeting by March 19 to develop a plan for meaningful parental involvement in any further restructuring efforts at Rio Grande.
        Frank Baca, attorney and lifelong South Valley resident, said he thinks the current reform efforts by the state and APS will be effective.
        The state Legislature has approved a Hispanic Education Act, which seeks to close the Hispanic achievement gap by engaging the community, and the Education Department plans to issue an annual report card about progress in bridging the achievement gap.
        Baca said the cost of student failure at Rio Grande has been too high.
        "It's frustrating to see the loss of potential and just to see folks that you know could do more and do better, just kind of flounder," he said.

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