Beige double-wide trailers-14 of them-are clustered around the perimeter of Piñon Elementary School, located on Santa Fe’s south side, at the end of a cul-de-sac near Rodeo Road and Richards Avenue. With an enrollment of 701 students, this is Santa Fe’s most crowded elementary school. The outdoor hallways here are made of asphalt and walking to the gym sometimes requires snow boots.
Despite all those portable classrooms, Piñon Principal Janis Devoti just smiles and focuses on the bright side.
"We were very lucky," she says, "when we were able to put in a restroom portable for the sixth-graders out there!"
In the cafeteria, where all of school's students converge each day, Piñon cycles 33 classes through four extremely noisy lunch shifts.
On the other side of town, at Acequia Madre Elementary, maintenance employee Felix Martinez sets out Styrofoam trays for what will prove to be a very serene spaghetti lunch. With only two classes for each of three lunch shifts, the cafeteria's six cheery multicolored long tables are never full.
"It's a lot nicer, I can tell you that," Martinez, who used to work at one of the district's larger elementary schools, says of life at a small school. "Everybody knows everybody."
Welcome to the two different realities of the Santa Fe Public Schools district.
Overcrowded on the south side, relatively sparse on the north and downtown, the enrollment disparity is a trend many years in the making, but accelerated recently by the concentration of housing growth and immigrant families on Santa Fe's burgeoning south side.
"The children of Santa Fe have moved," four-year Santa Fe Board of Education member Mary Ellen Gonzales explains. "And the schools haven't moved with them. If I could, I'd have the schools grow legs and move with them. That would probably be easiest," she says, laughing.
Since schools don't have legs, a dramatic imbalance is playing out. The issue is expected to come to a head Nov. 8, when the school board is scheduled to vote on a series of recommendations that could put Santa Fe on a path toward spreading students around more equitably. Among those recommendations is the controversial proposal to close at least one small school: Alvord Elementary.
"Equity is the No. 1 issue," school board President Frank Montaño, a former city councilor, says. For example, Piñon, the district's largest elementary school, and Alvord, its smallest school with 120 kids, have approximately the same number of computers.
Or, looked at another way: There are more students educated in portables on the south side than there are in all of the five downtown schools put together.
Piñon Principal Janis Devoti walks down the school's west wing hallway, pats a rail-thin girl on the head as if by instinct and tosses out a bit of history as a constant stream of students comes and goes.
Devoti recounts that the district closed JO Hansen Elementary in 1978 at the same time it opened Piñon as an all-portable school due south.
“They saw that wasn’t where the students were going to be attending and so they built Piñon,” she says. “I’m glad they had that foresight. It had to be done.”
But when a district rezoning proposal a few years ago advocated, in part, moving Piñon students to north-side schools to alleviate overcrowding, Devoti concedes that Piñon parents "were adamant that they didn't want their children moved."
Despite its large size and the high number of students for whom English is not a native language, the school has achieved Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) according to standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) two years running.
"Imagine if that school had more resources and 100 or so less students," Montaño says. "Give them a library they could use as a library and a decent computer lab and just imagine what they could do."
Piñon may be the district's largest, but it's hardly the only south-side school functioning well beyond full capacity.
Standing in the middle of Agua Fria Elementary's large, crowded cafeteria, Co-Principal Therese Moulton soaks in the racket. "We have a few kids that are overwhelmed with this noise," she half-shouts.
This south-side elementary school, the district's third largest with 601 students-counting its pre-K program-was renovated last year, but the school is still home to eight portable classrooms.
Among other recent renovations at the school, new acoustic panels were installed along the cafeteria walls. School councilor Carmen Delgado says the decibel level has been reduced by 17 percent as a result. Last year, she says, she actually had to turn off her hearing aid during the lunch shifts.
In the cafeteria, there are approximately 30 long tables and the noise is deafening despite the new panels. "This isn't bad noise," a cheerful Moulton says. "It's happy noise."
Indeed, the noise is the least of the challenges.
Bilingual sixth-grade math teacher Melissa Romero has 75 students spread across three classes at Agua Fria. Her classroom is full of tables, she says, because not enough desks could fit. "I don't have enough room," she says. Nor does she have enough computers. So she routinely gives up the computer at her desk, which gives students a total of five to use. The former small-school teacher, and recent south-side Centex home buyer, says her large classes, the varying grade levels of her students and the need to teach in both English and Spanish combine to present a tall daily order.
"I'm struggling to meet their needs," Romero says candidly. But she makes a point of adding that she was offered three teaching jobs at different schools in the district, and she chose to come to Agua Fria because of the challenge.
And by at least one measure, portable classrooms at Agua Fria are a step up. Starting last year, some of the portables became dedicated art classrooms. Before that, art class was known as "art on a cart."
When first asked about the biggest problems affecting her large school, Moulton bemoans the major congestion-"transportation issues," she says diplomatically-each weekday morning and afternoon when parents and buses transport kids to and from the school located where a south-side cul-de-sac dead ends. Then she mentions that "discipline issues are more numerous because you have a much larger pool."
Only after she hits those two points does she get to classroom issues.
"We're operating at an average of 21 to 22 students per teacher. I'd say ideal would be 18-to-1," Moulton says, "which, by the way, is a state recommendation for schools in restructuring." The principal says the district just doesn't get enough funding from the state to follow the recommendation.
But Don Moya, the chief financial officer for the state Public Education Department, counters that it is the local district that is responsible.
"Santa Fe has elected not to close any schools even though enrollment dropped by approximately 86 students from last year, and the district is still considering opening a new elementary school on the south side," he says. Moya, the former budget director for the Santa Fe Public Schools, calculates that the public schools' funding formula "unit value" associated with those 86 fewer students translates to a loss of approximately $1.1 million for the district.
Moulton concedes that student-teacher ratios are much the same at smaller schools due to the way the state funding formula equalizes student units. Teachers are assigned equally based on each school's enrollment. But her school's students are much needier, she says.
At Agua Fria, 100 percent of the students qualify for free lunch and the school even has a "backpack program," a partnership with Santa Fe's Food Depot, in which kids are given snacks to take home. The demographic here skews much poorer than most of the district's other schools.
It also skews more ethnic. There are only 14 Anglo students-barely 2 percent of the school’s students. Parent Teacher Conference agendas at Agua Fria aren’t even translated into English; they’re only in Spanish.
Agua Fria missed AYP by just one of 37 possible subgroups identified by NCLB-special education students' reading test scores. And that's progress. Three years ago, five subgroups pulled the school down. Two years ago, it was two subgroups.
"So you see a little story of improvement here," Moulton, who started out as an educational assistant at Kearny Elementary in 1976, says. But as she sees it, further improvement is being stymied by an obvious culprit.
"For sure one of our biggest problems is not having enough space," she says. Asked if she'd like more portables, she first glares as if hearing the most stupid question ever asked. Then she says, "I'd like for them to build another wing."
Compared to Agua Fria, the environs at both Alvord and Acequia Madre are spacious.
In Alvord's cafeteria, a total of six tables are set out each day for lunch, and they're never more than a third full. Stacks of metal chairs, apparently not needed, occupy the far corner of the room.
"It's very simple here," lunch server Magdalena Medina says, as she waits patiently for students to stroll through the line. "It's always very calm."
After lunch, a stroll down the school's hallway reveals very little activity. Peeking in several doorways reveals that several classrooms sit completely empty.
Bill Beecham, who is principal of both schools, can appreciate the difference between these schools and the crowded ones on the south side. He taught at Agua Fria several decades ago and also was principal at Sweeney Elementary.
He now splits his time between two of the district's smallest schools. In fact, Alvord is so small that one teacher teaches all the school's fourth- and fifth-graders. Another teacher handles both second-graders and third-graders in the same classroom. Alvord doesn't have-doesn't need-a single portable classroom.
In fact, the school's enrollment has declined by 16 percent since 2004, even as elementary school enrollment districtwide has increased by approximately 2 percent over the same period. Alvord currently has space for 33 more kids, a 21 percent vacancy rate.
Much the same dynamic applies at both Larragoite and Kaune elementaries. At both small schools, more than 45 percent of potential student desks sit empty, according to a district school capacity study conducted earlier this year.
Contrast that with Piñon Elementary, where 701 students are enrolled, 107 more than the school was designed to hold.
But what Alvord lacks in size it makes up for in the troupe of engaged, activist parents who have reliably been attending district and school board meetings over the last few months. Easily identifiable in their purple Alvord gear, their aim is to stave off closure by persuading the school board to transform Alvord into the district's first-ever "magnet school." Such a school features a specialized curriculum and open enrollment, meaning kids from anywhere in the district could attend. The proposed magnet curriculum for Alvord would focus on ecological sustainability.
An analysis performed by the district's Strategic Planning Oversight Committee (SPOC) makes the case for transforming Alvord into a magnet school this way:
"Given the size of the school, and the current state subsidy for it"-the state's funding formula incentivizes schools with less than 200 kids by giving districts a $167,000 annual subsidy-"Alvord represents a low-risk experiment and test-case for sorting out the bugs with the magnet school concept."
Nonetheless, it's a concept that SPOC recently voted against recommending to the school board, instead supporting a recommendation to permanently close Alvord by a 7-to-4 vote of committee members.
Beecham argues that closing schools like Alvord, the recipient of a $2 million renovation in 2004, or Acequia Madre, isn’t a solution. He favors the proposal to turn Alvord into a magnet school and believes doing so would boost enrollment. “We need to do things to retain the students we have,” he says.
It's a push-pull argument that the district has been grappling with for years.
Last year, it was Acequia Madre on the chopping block-until the school's plight actually made it to the Governor's Office. A spokesperson for Gov. Bill Richardson confirms that, in response to constituent complaints, the governor instructed his secretary of education to convey his opposition to any plan to close the school.
Frank Montaño characterizes Acequia Madre's reprieve as an example of how "a handful of people with power and political influence are holding the district back from doing what's right for the great majority of kids."
"It's not right and it's not fair," he adds. "But sometimes that's the way it is."
It takes just a quick look at Santa Fe's own demographics to unravel the disparity between its schools.
Census Bureau tract data, cited in the city’s most recent Trends report, shows more than 17,000 people live in the neighborhoods along Airport Road, including approximately 6,000 kids 17 years old or younger. The average age in that southern part of town is approximately 27. In the neighborhoods to the south of Rodeo Road, there are another 4,500 residents and 1,000 kids. The population in these parts of Santa Fe has more that doubled since 1990.
Along Airport Road and south of Rodeo Road, there are more than 8,000 housing units, including approximately 2,400 mobile homes.
In the very downtown area, on the other hand, there are only 556 residents, 22 kids and the average age is 74. Due northeast of downtown along Bishops Lodge Road, 4,200 people are residents with approximately 500 kids. In both places the demographics have held very steady since 1990.
But while the construction of affordable housing has moved south-and with it families and school-age children-the schools themselves have not kept up.
"I think the district is somewhat chronically behind the curve" when it comes to planning for future or even current housing growth, Santa Fe Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Bobbi Gutierrez concedes. "That's been the conversation for years," she adds. But it's a conversation that may finally be moving beyond mere words.
Better coordination between the school district and city and county planners would seem to be one way that the never-ending cycle of overcrowding could be tamed. To that end, the principal of Santa Fe's SER/SFPS Career Academy, an alternative public high school, was recently appointed to the city Planning Commission.
"To have someone at the district level on the city Planning Commission is huge," Santa Fe school board Vice President Martin Lujan (who also is running for City Council) says.
Carmichael Dominguez is a former city planning commissioner, a former school board member and currently a member of the City Council. On Oct. 30, he introduced a resolution that would eventually require developers to meet with school district officials and "mitigate the impact their development may have on the school district." Dominguez says mitigations might require developers to donate land for future school sites or even pay fees instead.
The south-side councilor also believes the proposal would jumpstart better communication on growth issues, even if it wouldn't be popular in every quarter. "Developers aren't gonna like it," he predicts. Dominguez makes a point of adding that a parallel process should be initiated between Santa Fe County and the school district.
District officials note that existing local ordinances call for developers to submit plans for new subdivisions to the district for review, but they often don't.
According to Reed Liming, the city's long range planning division director, the school district will have to grapple with as many 6,500 new housing units on the south side based on already-approved master plans for the next decade. The Tierra Contenta development is expected to add another 2,000 to 3,000 housing units; Las Soleras another 1,500 to 2,000 units. And smaller developments scattered along the north side of Airport Road are expected to add another 1,000 to 1,500 more.
And that's not even the whole growth story. Those numbers don't include additional projected housing growth in Rancho Viejo. That's where the district has slated its next elementary school to be built, although school officials are scrambling for the funds to operate it. Nor does it include the 800 homes expected to be built in the city-owned Northwest Quadrant.
Most of those new homes will likely grow plenty of school-age kids for Santa Fe's public schools. But Dominguez is the first to point out that neither the city nor the school district has a firm handle on how many kids can be expected.
Gutierrez, a 23-year-veteran of the district, expresses a longer view:
"We should be building a school in Tierra Contenta along with one in Rancho Viejo," she says. "We've got to look beyond Rancho Viejo because the moment that school opens, we're going to need more schools on the south side."
She says that by 2012 the district will likely need three new elementary schools on the south side, given development projections.
But building new schools is only half a solution in the eyes of some.
“I think that if we have the same number of students and we keep building new schools and we don’t close other schools, there’s a certain lack of logic there,” board member Gonzales says. Closing schools, she adds, would free up money that would otherwise go to pay insurance payments, utility bills and routine maintenance at the particular school. And that money-as much as $200,000 annually in the case of Alvord-could immediately be applied to the district’s operational needs elsewhere.
Immediate is the right word for the district's needs, particularly as they relate to its next elementary school, slated to open in 2009 in the heart of the Rancho Viejo development near the Santa Fe Community College. Currently, district officials aren't sure where they will find the funds to operate it.
But they are sure it would help relieve overcrowded schools nearby. In fact, the new school would offer immediate relief to Piñon by rezoning an estimated 225 of its students to the Rancho Viejo school.
Given the need to adjust some school zone boundaries with the arrival of the new elementary school-the first one since Ramirez Thomas Elementary opened four years ago just off Airport Road on the south side-the district's Strategic Planning Oversight Committee has recommended district-wide rezoning.
The rezoning proposal aims to shrink enrollment at the district's largest schools as well as boost enrollment at schools with the most open seats. Ideally schools would have approximately 500 or fewer students under the plan.
Lujan notes that the district hasn't implemented a full districtwide rezoning plan in nearly three decades. "Spot rezoning is not going to do it," he says. He emphasizes that a complete rezoning could even out enrollment by making modest changes to school boundaries, changes he doesn't expect to generate the same kind of opposition previous efforts have provoked.
Another committee recommendation aims to generate more funds for the school district by selling or leasing some of its most valuable properties. Both the downtown 2.9-acre Alvord campus, and the land where Manderfield Elementary once sat on Upper Canyon Road, are cited as properties that could be used to buck up the district's operational revenue.
“Those properties are so valuable that they’d be better used to create income for all the kids of the district rather than 100 kids,” Montaño argues. The district also owns approximately 240 acres in the undeveloped Northwest Quadrant, more than enough space for a future school when that land gets developed.
Board member Angelica Ruiz, who joined the board seven months ago, believes the big-picture solution to inequity in the schools lies in the creation of affordable housing in the north and east sectors. Then, she says, "these schools will once again be populated and enrollments will even out." Whether or not that's realistic remains to be seen.
And then there's the most contentious SPOC recommendation, adopted Oct. 29: Close Alvord.
An early read on the Nov. 8 vote for closing Alvord reveals a sharply divided board. For the most part, interviews with school board members indicate a breakdown that matches the schools they represent. But there is some deviation from that rule.
Even thought she represents four of the six most crowded schools in the district, Ruiz nonetheless doesn't like the idea of closing any schools. "I will never be in support of taking away from one child to give to another child," she says emphatically. Ruiz is the mother of four kids, each of whom attend Santa Fe public schools.
Lujan, whose district includes Alvord and Tesuque elementary schools, has voiced support for the proposal to turn Alvord into a magnet school and speculates that maybe Kaune Elementary-which is not in his district-is a better candidate than Alvord for possible closure.
Montaño, who represents small schools like Kearny and Larragoite, says he favors closing Alvord. He says students there would "all fit very nicely at Larragoite where there's room." He adds that tiny Kaune could send its students to roomy Salazar Elementary. Both Alvord and Kaune could then be very valuable money makers for the district, Montaño says.
For his part, board member Richard Polese, who represents mostly small schools, including Acequia Madre, says he sees the choice the district faces as one between “innovation and retrenchment.” He has indicated that he too favors turning Alvord into a magnet school.
Gonzales, who represents both big Piñon and little Kaune, isn't torn about what to do. "I'm certainly not interested in closing schools," she says, "but I have a larger priority and that's alleviating the overcrowding on the south side.'
Montaño has an even broader priority: increased school funding overall. "We wouldn't have the problems of overcrowded schools if the Legislature took the funding of schools seriously," he says. Right now, he adds, "we're trying to squeeze blood out of turnip."
A state task force has been re-examining the school funding formula and recommendations are expected in time for the legislative session starting in January. What those recommendations are remain hazy, although, according to both Moya and state Rep. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, hundreds of millions of additional dollars could be on the table.
In the meantime, Santa Fe's board members have some tough decisions to make.
Just how tough became obvious at its Oct. 16 meeting, held in front of a jam-packed audience in the EJ Martinez Elementary gym. Both the issue of teacher pay and the potential closure of Alvord dominated the meeting.
Ana Llobet came to speak about the latter. Waiting in a long line to address the board, the Spanish-born Los Alamos physicist was decked out in a purple Alvord sweatshirt, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail, her two toddlers rapping and yapping at her legs.
As Llobet made her way to the podium, she hoisted her boy into her right arm. Once at the mic, she hoisted her daughter into her left one.
Lujan, the school board vice president, wasn't the only one to chuckle at the spontaneous display of poise and strength.
"I believe it's a mistake to close the small schools to benefit the larger ones," Llobet told the board. "We need your support," she added.
Despite all the arguments to the contrary-and the fact that it’s Llobet’s arms that are overcrowded and not her neighborhood school-she may yet get her wish.