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Grade Controversy Lives On

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Journal Staff Writer
    It's been nearly a year since the South Valley was rocked by a school district decision to change the grade of a failing Rio Grande High student.
    And, still, the shock waves continue.
    In recent weeks, teachers, the principal of Rio Grande, administrators and others have traded barbs in heated letters published in the Journal.
    The letters and public statements came after the state dismissed an ethics case against Elsy Fierro, the district official who ordered that the senior's English grade be changed so he could graduate with his class.
    State Sen. James Taylor said he doubts the controversy will end anytime soon.
    "There has been no closure," the South Valley Democrat said late last week. "That's been the biggest problem with the whole issue. I think the school district kind of washed their hands of what was going on."
    Fierro had faced a licensure hearing for ordering that the student's failing grade be changed in May 2007. His parents had complained that Rio Grande officials had not given them adequate notice that he was failing so they could get help for him.
    Fierro, the Rio Grande cluster leader, overruled the student's teacher and principal in ordering the change.
    A state investigation found in the school's favor last summer and targeted Fierro for ethics charges, even though she had made her decision with Associate Superintendents Nelinda Venegas and Susie Peck.
    The ethics case was dropped after a judge ruled that the student's records could not be released publicly because of privacy concerns.
    Fierro now wants her name cleared, prompting Rio Grande teachers to say they need answers about what really happened.
    "It's like nobody wants to take responsibility for this," English teacher David Bleicher has said. "And every time it comes up, it opens the wounds again."
    Taylor said the issue of who the student is— the son of County Commissioner Teresa Córdova and former school board member Miguel Acosta— has died down.
    "I think an apology is due the teacher," Taylor said. "Even APS didn't know how to handle the situation."
'APS blunder'
    Last week, Venegas wrote a letter to the Journal in which, among other things, she defended Fierro and criticized Rio Grande staff for failing to maintain a log of contact with parents and records of the student's academic plans.
    Rio Grande Principal Al Sanchez took issue in his own letter published in the Journal: "I find it humiliating and discouraging that Venegas would publicly state that I failed to do my job by not addressing this issue."
    In an interview, Sanchez said he wants the whole controversy to end.
    "Hopefully, it will be over," Sanchez said. "I think it was just an APS blunder, and, hopefully, we'll all learn that this will never happen again."
    He said he wants to focus on standardized test scores now and the upcoming graduation.
    Rio Grande activities director James Chavez said the grade change is still an explosive issue in the school's English department.
    "I don't think the rest of the school is as bitter or as angry," Chavez said. "Most of the kids don't really think about it at all. ... To me, it's done with."
    Still, he has noticed that rules have tightened, with administrators demanding syllabuses from teachers at the beginning of the year.
    Some rank "Gradegate" among the top controversies at the school in recent years: the 1998 student walk-out and riot; the 1992 student walkout over the removal of then-principal Milton Baca; the "four-headed Raven" outcry over the APS appointment of four principals to lead the school in 2002; and Principal Sanchez escorting a student off campus to a barber shop in 2006 to get a design removed from his hair.
    Many are supportive of Rio Grande, Sanchez and teacher Anita Forte— the teacher whose grade was changed— and bitter about APS.
    "I agree with Mr. Sanchez and staff," said Joe Montoya, a member of the community-based South Valley Educational Initiative. "They did what they had to do. They did it properly."
    Montoya wants APS to replace Fierro with a "South- area superintendent," an administrative position last held in the 1990s.
'Dead dog'
    Community activist Clara Peña said it's an issue for some in the South Valley, but "different people have different interests."
    "Those who are closest to it, they are the ones facing the issues," Peña said.
    Others like Rhonda Reinert, who is with the South Valley Growers Market, said she hadn't thought of the issue until those involved started writing letters that were published in the Journal.
    "It's certainly making people consider the issue again," Reinert said. "I doubt recent exchanges have changed any minds. If they were on the teacher's side, they're still on the teacher's side."
    Anita Lucero, who works for the Atrisco Heritage Foundation— which represents heirs of the Atrisco Land Grant— said people need to be forgiving of Commissioner Córdova.
    "I think everybody makes mistakes," Lucero said. "I know what she did was wrong. It's a dead dog already. Let's move forward."