Public Schools by the Numbers

Why the district's approach just doesn't add up

It's been a turbulent 2011 for Santa Fe Public Schools, between the controversial extension of the superintendent's contract and poor student achievement results. Here's a look at the numbers that point to the need for reform and an update on related issues.

$12.1 million is what the district spent to consolidate three small schools into Aspen Community Magnet School, to the chagrin of parents who were reluctant to give up their small-school advantages. The student performance results for Aspen ended up worse than those of two of the three schools it replaced.

Bullying problems that existed at Aspen's site before, when it was Alameda Middle School, persisted at its new incarnation, leading some parents to seek alternatives [news, Oct. 26: "Bully Pulpit"].

The Aspen project, an ill-fated plan to spend $28 million to close Atalaya and Acequia Madre schools, and the ongoing $20 million construction project planned for Agua Fria Elementary led to questions about the district's main focus: instruction or construction?

"It's a distraction from improving educational quality," Board of Education Vice President Glenn Wikle says [cover story, Sept. 21: "Left Behind"].

More than three years after current Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez took the helm, the Board of Education voted Dec. 6 on non-construction-related goals for the district. The district spent $30,000 to hire an education consultant to help with this process, leading BoE Member Steve Carrillo to argue that the fee should be taken out of Gutierrez' $120,000 annual salary [briefs, Nov. 16: "Below Board"].

$1.4 million of SFPS' operational funds went to purchase a McGraw-Hill reading curriculum called Treasures, which parents decry as a pre-digested test-prep program with no literary value. After Linda Besett, principal of Wood Gormley, the district's highest-performing elementary school, told SFR that her teachers supplement Treasures with more challenging materials, Gutierrez asked Besett to explain her comments [, Sept. 23: "Star Principal Under Fire"]. Gutierrez also sent out a letter to district teachers explaining the importance of "fidelity" to the program and incorrectly reiterating that the curriculum is state-enforced.

In spite of the money the district shelled out for Treasures, SFPS students scored 7.9 percentage points lower than the state average in reading last year. Worse, SFPS' graduation rate ranked 88th out of 89 school districts statewide.

"I don't really care what yardstick you pick…at the end of the day, the high school graduation rate sucks, and there's no way you can argue with that," Dan Baker, a parent and president of the parent teacher organization at Wood Gormley elementary, says.

In perhaps the biggest SFPS brouhaha of the year, the district simultaneously tried to marshal test scores as evidence that Gutierrez was succeeding. In order to show growth in student achievement between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years, SFPS Director of Assessment and Accountability Lynn Vanderlinden zeroed out data from students who didn't improve their scores. [news, June 29: "Zero Sum"]. Since those data were used to justify extending Gutierrez' contract—on Feb. 17, the day of the outgoing school board's final meeting—some board members called for an outside investigation, but were voted down by Board President Barbara Gudwin, Member Frank Montaño and Secretary Linda Trujillo.

The controversies have been partly exacerbated by what some see as Gutierrez' unwillingness to accept responsibility for the problems. In her 2011 state of the schools address, Gutierrez twice mentioned the 72 percent Hispanic makeup of the student population as a partial explanation for the district's woes and twice decried the media for "incorrect facts" and "refusal to create fair and balanced stories." Although she pointed to "in particular, weekly publications," as of press time, Gutierrez has not been able to cite a single inaccuracy in any of SFR's coverage.

But in the same speech, Gutierrez admitted that current student achievement levels are "not acceptable" and acknowledged a need to "develop a different culture for parent involvement and engagement," create better recruitment and retention strategies for teachers and "increase our concern about the academic growth of students."

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