The latest round of school grades released from the New Mexico Public Education Department for Santa Fe Public Schools showed mixed results that may take weeks to decipher, but Interim Superintendent Veronica Garcia honed in on one set of scores: Acequia Madre and Pinon Elementary both moved from a B score in 2015, to an A this year. Both were able to make those necessary gains despite the very different composition—one is downtown and the other sits just south of Rodeo Road. And that’s a mark, she said in an informal sit-down with staff and media Wednesday afternoon, of an ability for schools to succeed regardless of their zipcode. 

The state bases grades on scores on a number of standardized tests, improvement from prior years as a school and among individual students, classroom practices that use proven teaching methods, student attendance, and a number of bonus points that can be secured through parent involvement, extracurricular offerings and reducing truancy. This year's report from the state saw 10 schools receive a higher grade, 11 schools receive a lower grade, and eight receive the same score as last year. With the data fresh in their hands, Garcia says, it's tough to name what fueled those fluxes. That analysis will likely be coming in a presentation to the school board weeks down the road. But the bottom line, Garcia says, is that to have five schools scoring an F is unacceptable.

"We're going to have to double our efforts," she says. "We have a job to do and we have an ethical and a moral responsibility that we are educating our kids in a manner that they are graduating from high school and ready to go into college or career, to be ready to support their families, to be contributing members of our society."

Notable gains were also achieved for Salazar Elementary and Gonzales Community School (K-8), with Salazar increasing from an F to a C, and Gonzales climbing for the second straight year, securing a B.

Stephanie Hubley, assistant principal at Gonzales, attributed their success to a strong team, an involved PTA, and basing instruction on student data.

"While we do focus certainly on data, we also consider the whole student in terms of, we don't lose the heart," Hubley says. "So it's kind of that interesting balance in this day and age of being data-driven and at the same time looking at the human being in front of us."

They've also made use of intervention periods, additional instruction in areas identified as weak, and use that opportunity to give English language learning students additional support from certified teachers and outreach for gifted students.

An attitude that learning doesn't stop at 3 pm helped at Salazar, says James Luján, associate superintendent for school improvement and social justice, as did the support and dedication of staff, families and students, and an individualized approach to instruction during intervention periods.

The oft-cited frustration with the school grading system is that schools that get labeled as failing aren't without hardworking teachers, dedicated staff or capable students, and to be marked as failing stings.

"We could take a day or two to be sad. It can be a morale issue and we need to recognize that," Garcia says. "I don't think I can ask teachers to work harder, because they have been working hard. It's about working smarter."

She'll be aiming intensive support at those schools and named short-cycle assessments—standardized tests completed routinely through the year—as a tool to use to guide instruction and improve school performance. Ongoing professional development programs for teachers will be individualized to the school.

In secondary schools in particular, she says, teachers are prepared to teach content, not to teach students how to read, and yet, they have to teach students how to read.

"We need to work hard with our staff and students on taking the grades seriously, there's always the controversy about standardized testing but that's the data and we have to work with it," says Carl Marano, principal at Santa Fe High, who just took that position this summer and says in his first weeks he's been very impressed with both the students and the staff.

What he tells his teachers, he says, is that doing the best job they can and putting students first is what matters, and that the payoff comes in the long run.

"The biggest reward for any educator is not the school letter grade. It's 10 years down the road, having a student say, 'Thank you for all you did for me,'" he says. "These results aren't immediate, but knowing that you can make an impact and be someone's reason for coming to school, that's what we strive to do. But that doesn't mean we ignore the results, or ignore the data. It's—fair or not, it's an assessment, it's what the state uses, and that's what we have to live with. … We have a great school, no matter what the letter grade says."

A complete list of school grades is available on the New Mexico Public Education Department website.