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          Front Page




Student Letters Fuel Debate on Remedial Classes

By Zsombor Peter
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Jefferson Middle School Principal Mike McNamara thought it was a good idea.
    Teacher David Wahler would have his social studies students write letters to the Journal in response to a story and editorial that appeared earlier this month. Both were about the district's plan to mandate remedial classes for high school students not proficient in math or reading.
    "I thought it was a meaningful assignment that gave the students a chance to voice their opinions on a very important issue," McNamara said.
    Since appearing in the Journal on Wednesday, however, those error-riddled letters have divided many on what, if anything, they say about education at Albuquerque's public schools. Even district officials can't agree.
    APS board member Berna Facio sounded appalled that such poorly written letters were coming from one of the district's middle schools, and from one of its more reputable middle schools at that.
    Some of the letters contained misspellings and grammatical errors.
    "Before they get out (of middle school), they should be proficient enough to write a decent letter," Facio said during a meeting of the board's Policy Committee on Thursday. "And that's the good school," she said of Jefferson.
    Interim Superintendent Linda Sink weighed in on Thursday, posting a letter on the district's Web site saying she found it "unsettling" that the letters appeared in "first draft" form.
    Teachers are taught to go through several drafts of a student's work before assigning a final grade, Sink said, a process designed to help students learn from their mistakes. These letters to the editor, she said, should have been handled the same way.
    "Teachers are expected to oversee and, where necessary, correct students' work before publication," Sink said in the letter.
    Wahler did not return a message the Journal left for him at Jefferson.
    McNamara agreed that Wahler should have worked on the letters with his students before sending them.
    "It was quite clear that the letters were not edited," said McNamara.
    Board member Dolores Griego, however, called that a "weak excuse." Like Facio, she told Sink at the committee meeting the letters exposed deeper questions about the literacy of the district's students.
    Sink conceded she was "surprised" at the number of misspellings and grammatical errors in the letters, the more so because they came from Jefferson.
    The school's students have met the state's reading proficiency benchmarks for at least the past two years.
    McNamara called the letters an "aberration."
    "The letters that were published just do not reflect the vast majority of our kids," he said.
    The letters caught many Journal readers by surprise, as well.
    "I am appalled, embarrassed and ashamed if this is what these students have learned so far," wrote one grandmother.
    A former teacher wrote: "I was astounded that these children had made it to middle school. Where are the teachers who have allowed students to get by with such an appalling lack of English grammar skills?"
    Another former teacher pointed out that first drafts are sometimes abysmal at all levels.
    The article and editorial that sparked the letters reported that high school students not proficient in math or reading might have to sacrifice their electives. District officials hope that will motivate students to do better.
    Critics say it will remove the one incentive some at-risk students have to attend school in the first place.
    While the Journal routinely corrects errors in letters, it did not do so in this case because the letters were part of a debate regarding student proficiency.