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          Front Page

Success Elusive at Rio Grande

By Martin Salazar
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          The school reform bull's-eye has been on Rio Grande High since at least 1987.
        That's when dismal test scores and threats of a lawsuit resulted in a U.S. Justice Department mediator being brought in to help hammer out an improvement plan between Albuquerque Public Schools and unhappy parents.
        With the improvement goals spelled out in what became known as the Sambrano Agreement, the district, parents and students rolled up their sleeves and went to work trying to transform the historically low-performing school. At the heart of their cause was the idea that students in the South Valley deserved the same quality education as their more affluent counterparts in the Northeast Heights.
        "What I believe passionately is the fact that all kids need to be offered the opportunity to thrive, to be the best they can be, and that means that you have to believe that they can," said Flora Sanchez, one of those who fought for the Sambrano Agreement. "In the early days I think those expectations were not there."
        Since the Sambrano Agreement, the district has poured millions of dollars into the Rio Grande cluster and has tried a dizzying array of reform efforts over the years.
        Yet graduation rates and test scores have remained low, and Rio Grande continues to be among the Albuquerque district's lowest performing schools.
        Rio Grande is not alone — it shares many of the demographics of other struggling schools in New Mexico: a high population of Hispanics and poor families.
        Understanding its plight could be important as the state begins a renewed push to tackle struggling schools with a requested $160 million grant from the federal government.
        Sanchez, who served for eight years on the now-defunct State Board of Education, agreed that understanding what went wrong at Rio Grande, as well as what has made a difference there, could be key to overcoming the problems that plague so many New Mexico schools.
        Poorest in APS
        To be sure, Rio Grande has produced students who have gone on to universities like Harvard, Notre Dame, Stanford, Columbia and Vassar.
        But boosting the academic performance of its struggling students has proven more challenging:
        Only 52 percent of Rio Grande students graduated within four years in 2008 compared to 63.2 percent districtwide. And only 32.2 percent of Rio's juniors tested last year were proficient in reading, compared to a district average of 58 percent.
        An obvious factor in those rates is the school's high poverty rate — nearly two-thirds of its students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, making it the poorest four-year high school in APS. Coming a close second is West Mesa, which has managed to attain slightly better graduation rates and student proficiency scores.
        But a few things seem clear from APS' previous failed attempts to turn this high school around: Money hasn't solved the problem. Piling school improvement programs on top of one another hasn't fixed the problem. Not even the strong commitment from APS and the South Valley community have been enough to eliminate the ocean-sized student achievement gap that separates Rio Grande High from schools like La Cueva, which boasts an 87.9 percent graduation rate and a reading proficiency rate of 83 percent.
        "We've been disillusioned by the fact that things have not improved much faster," Sanchez said.
        Federal funding
        A closer look at the money shows that schools in the Rio Grande cluster this year are getting more than $3.4 million in federal funds to help their struggling students, compared to less than $2,000 going to schools in the La Cueva cluster. Only the West Mesa High cluster receives more federal funds than Rio.
        An APS study in 2002 found the Rio cluster had a greater share of funding for general education than any other cluster.
        As for programs, here is just a sampling of what's been tried:
        • In the 1980s, APS invested in early childhood programs for South Valley children.
        • In 1998, the Rio Grande principal was given more latitude to make changes at the school.
        • In 1999, APS announced a new summer program to help struggling eighth-graders catch up. And APS announced a summer training seminar for all South Valley principals and a reduced freshman class size.
        • In 2002, Rio Grande was broken into three smaller academies with four principals to create a small-school feel.
        • In 2004, the academy concept was scrapped and Rio Grande returned to a single principal. One of the three academies was retained, and the school continued to receive $1.2 million in extra funding for having smaller "schools."
        Eddie Soto, a former Rio Grande principal who is now an APS associate superintendent, said Rio Grande in the past didn't put much thought into the programs it was starting.
        "We would just layer on program after program after program without any real strategic thought. ...," he said. "It was simply, 'Oh, it sounds good. Let's do it.' Whereas now we're ... looking for greater coherence within the programs that we have there."
        Former state Sen. James Taylor, for one, said more money is not the solution.
        "Before we spend another penny at Rio or anywhere else, I want to know where every Title 1 dollar has gone at Rio," said Taylor, who is on the school's parent council. Title 1 is a federal program designed to help disadvantaged students improve their academic performance.
        "I want to know where every special appropriation has gone and what the outcomes are with that," he added. "That's really what we need to do. Evaluate what we actually spend there ... and why our outcomes are in the shape they're in before we put (in) any new dollars."
        Taylor, a Rio graduate, is frustrated at the merry-go-round of reforms over the years.
        "There are a lot of great teachers at Rio Grande, there always have been. ...," he said. "But I think the lack of stable administration at the school has been one of the biggest problems because everybody comes in with a newfangled way to save us from ourselves."
        The school has had at least eight principals the past 15 years.
        Taylor also charged that APS has done a poor job of involving the community in key decisions about the school.
        The tug of war between APS and Rio Grande High parents has been going on for years, and Sanchez suspects that's been part of the problem.
        "They've got to give it time to work," she said of reforms, adding that there's blame enough to go around.
        "I fault schools a lot," she said. "I think they've opted out and have been very complacent around the excuse that some kids can't learn — that the poverty and all those things they grow up in are going to maim them for life. And I think when they have that attitude, it's real hard to overcome."
        Some progress made
        That's not to say that Rio Grande hasn't made progress in addressing some of the concerns raised in 1987.
        Richard Sambrano, the former mediator who hammered out the agreement that bears his name, said one of the major concerns back then was that South Valley schools were dilapidated, in contrast to Northeast Heights schools.
        Taylor and others acknowledge that infrastructure in the Rio Grande cluster today is in comparable shape to APS schools in other parts of the city. Also, Rio Grande is now offering more advanced placement classes for students.
        Sambrano, retired and living in Texas, said APS and the South Valley community were sincere in their desire to fix problems in the area's schools.
        The desired gains in student performance, however, have been more difficult to achieve.
        "I think we did achieve some things that have had some lasting impact," Sanchez said. "The needle has moved, but the outcomes are still real far from where they need to be."
        Alan Marks, who has been honored nationally for his work in the classroom, questioned the fairness of blaming Rio Grande for the lack of progress on that front.
        "How fair is it to say to Rio Grande High School that here you've got ... 20 percent (of the students) coming in
        with third- and fourth-grade skills and 50 percent coming in with sixth- and seventh-grade skills? What are you going to do about that?," said Marks, who taught at the school from 1978 to 1992 and went on to found South Valley Academy charter school about 10 years ago.
        "It's a heck of a hand to be dealt," he added. "It almost feels like if you really want to hold a high school accountable, then give them people who at least have reached seventh-grade level skills and higher, and see if they can get all of those people to advance to 12th grade level skills by the time they leave..."
        Frank Baca, attorney and lifelong South Valley resident, said schools must do a better job of teaching, boards must do better at holding superintendents and principals accountable and teacher colleges should do a better job of training teachers. But he argues the community also bears some responsibility.
        Baca said parents must have high expectations and make sure homework is getting done while holding their children accountable. Businesses that employ students should make sure those kids are doing well in school, and ministers, priests and coaches should emphasize the importance of education.
        "We, as a community, need to do a better job of placing a value on education," Baca said. "It's one thing to say the institutions need to change, but if we, those of us in the community, are not doing a better job, it makes the institutional change less effective."
        Rio Grande And Its Cluster Schools' Struggles Through The Years
        • 1984: The APS school board says it wants to see genuine improvement in academic achievement at the low-performing Downtown and South Valley schools.
        • Spring 1987: Parents and Hispanic advocacy groups ask the Department of Justice to investigate alleged funding inequalities among Albuquerque schools. They contend APS is shortchanging South Valley students.
        • Fall 1987: APS and South Valley hammer out the Sambrano agreement. It calls on APS to make building improvements and establish new in-home education programs. The parties also agree to remedy disproportionate achievement scores, improve curriculum and increase community involvement.
        • 1989: Stakeholders report that Rio Grande is in the midst of a transformation, but its 30 percent dropout rate is the highest of all 11 APS high schools. APS has allocated about $200,000 to Rio Grande and its 13 feeder schools each year since 1985.
        • 1989: APS allocates $159,000 for early childhood programs for all elementary schools in the Rio Grande cluster.
        • 1992: Milton Baca is suspended as Rio Grande High principal for mismanaging school money and violating school policy. He is replaced by Veronica Garcia, who is now the state's education secretary.
        • 1995: Garcia is promoted, and Eduardo B. Soto takes over. No school in the Rio cluster reaches the national average of 50. The cluster's scores range from 44 to 16.
        • 1996: The Sambrano agreement is amended to make the dropout rate at Rio Grande a key indicator of success. A study of Rio cluster schools found that in 1988, only 39 percent of students made it through middle school and graduated from Rio Grande High. Federal education programs like Title 1 pump about $9 million every year into low-income schools like those in the Rio cluster. APS and a South Valley group create a plan to raise test scores and lower dropout rates. It calls for schools to focus on literacy, provide alternative classes for suspended students and actively involve parents.
        • 1997: In the Rio Grande cluster, only two classes perform at or above the national average score of 50.
        • 1998: An 800-student protest over teacher pay turns into a riot. Gloria Vigil is named principal and given more latitude to make changes under an agreement between the district and teachers union. Rio Grande gets about $740,000 in state and federal grants, or $386 for each student — more than any other APS high school. It posted APS' lowest graduation rate at 40.5 percent.
        • 1999: Superintendent Brad Allison's reform plan for South Valley schools includes: more summer courses for struggling students, summer training for South Valley principals and reduced freshman class size. The graduation rate is 45.2 percent.
        • 2000: Ten of 14 Rio cluster schools are probationary under No Child Left Behind. Rio Grande will get $625,000 for a computer network to provide instruction on the Internet. It is also one of six schools sharing in a $1.5 million federal grant to serve students who want vigorous preparation for college.
        • 2001: An Albuquerque nonprofit gets a $350,000 federal grant to improve educational opportunities and reduce the dropout rate at Rio Grande. Cohort graduation rate: 41.4 percent. South Valley parents call for new leadership.
        • 2002: Study finds Rio Grande is the highest-funded cluster in APS for regular education. Principal Vigil resigns under pressure. New academies at Rio Grande debut with four new principals; teachers are added to lower class sizes, with the help of two federal grants totaling nearly $460,000. Cohort graduation rate: 35.5 percent.
        • 2003: Rio Grande is among the APS schools that will share in $369,000 in Title 1 money to improve struggling schools. It finally escapes "corrective action" status. Annual dropout rate is 2.2 percent. Still, only 36.9 percent of the 1999-2000 freshman class graduates on time, compared with a district average of 52.2 percent.
        • 2004: Controversial academy concept ends. Rio Grande returns to a one-principal system and scraps two of its three academies, but continues to receive $1.2 million in extra funding for having smaller "schools." Al Sanchez becomes principal.
        • 2005: Cluster gets a new leader whose main job is closing the achievement gap. Eight of the cluster's 14 schools are on the state's "needs improvement" list. Only 25.1 percent of Rio Grande High's juniors test proficient in reading; 6.8 percent test proficient in math.
        • 2006: 34.7 percent of juniors test proficient in reading; 9.8 percent test proficient in math.
        • 2007: 19.9 percent of juniors test proficient in reading; 15 percent test proficient in math. The school's cohort graduation rate is 38.7 percent.
        • 2008: APS-calculated graduation rate for Rio Grande is 34.5 percent; state rate, calculated differently, is 52 percent. 44.7 percent of juniors test proficient in reading; 21.7 percent proficient in math.
        • 2009: Linda Torres is named principal. District begins paying $5,000 stipends to teachers at Rio Grande and Ernie Pyle Middle School to attract highly experienced teachers. Annual proficiency tests for juniors: 32.2 percent in reading; 22 percent in math. Rio budget is cut by $335,000 when enrollment drops by 250 students, but it continues to receive an extra $665,000 it has been getting from APS for several years to help improve the school.
        • 2010: The state ranks Rio Grande High and Ernie Pyle Middle among the 35 lowest-achieving schools in the state. The Rio cluster gets more than $3.8 million in extra money from federal and state grants.
        Source: published reports, PED, APS

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