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Thursday, October 29, 2009
Violence Has School Under Scrutiny
By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
A charter school for at-risk students is facing increased scrutiny from city officials, who say the school is a nuisance and could be shuttered if it doesn't crack down on student behavior.
The Academy of Trades and Technology, on Yale SE near Gibson, was the site of a fight earlier this month that police said involved about 20 students. A gunshot was fired into the air during the fight, although no one was hurt.
School officials say they are working with the neighborhood to address safety concerns. They say their school serves students who might not be able to get diplomas and job skills elsewhere.
"We are being a better neighbor," said the school's governing council president Henry Lackey. He said students, many of whom are being trained in construction, have volunteered their skills renovating a synagogue and have done other community service.
He also cited the school's academic success. Despite its difficult demographics, it made adequate yearly progress in math and reading last year, according to state data.
But the school has a troubled history. Police records show police and firefighters have been called there 43 times since October 2008. Three calls were for a fight in progress and another six were because of a "disturbance."
Violence was cited last year when the Albuquerque Public Schools board considered revoking the school's charter, but ultimately it did not.
City Council President Isaac Benton said the recent fight brought the school into the spotlight, but it has troubled his constituents for years.
"Since the school opened, there have been complaints about it, not so much what's going on inside the building as what goes on outside," Benton said. "What happens is between classes and whenever they're not in class, the students are allowed to just mill around in the street, and that's not working out."
Benton and the city's chief public safety officer, Pete Dinelli, hope to schedule a meeting with school officials soon to discuss solutions.
Dinelli, who heads the city's nuisance abatement team, said the police calls would be sufficient grounds to shut down the school. He said he would prefer to work with the school but would not hesitate to use tough measures.
"Students are actually mad-dogging neighbors and, for that matter, getting in their cars, going up the streets and disrupting the neighborhood," Dinelli said. "That kind of activity really can't be tolerated. It could very easily be declared a nuisance."
But he said he hopes it doesn't come to that. He said the school could take measures like closing the campus, adding security, extending fences or adopting a dress code.
Lackey said the school is not ruling out any possible changes to school policy.
Students at the charter come from difficult backgrounds, he said. The school employs a social worker, two licensed therapists and two gang intervention specialists. Many students have children, so the school offers parenting assistance and day care.
Lisa Grover, chief executive officer of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, said most of the students would likely drop out completely if the school closed.
"We can't lose these kids, we just can't," she said, adding that the school is working on its relationship with neighbors.
"If we all take the attitude, 'not in my neighborhood,' that's just not what we're about as a society," Grover said. "It's everyone's responsibility to help save these kids."
Dinelli said the students' background is no excuse.
"If they're at-risk kids, I think they need to understand this may be their last chance," he said. "The city's patience is running thin on this, only because the neighbors are now demanding action."