Rosangela Rogers knows she can come off strong when it comes to her children.
“I’m like a mama bear,” she tells SFR with a laugh, raising her hands like claws, ready to attack.
Inside her home a few days before Halloween, her three children—a boy in sixth grade, and twin girls in third—watch a cartoon together. She’s at the kitchen table, sorting through piles of photocopied legal documents, affidavits and emailed correspondence between Santa Fe Public School employees that she obtained through public information requests. They point to events that unfolded over the last school year at Wood Gormley Elementary School, located in the wealthy South Capitol neighborhood and one of the best schools in the district, according to state public education academic rankings.
It began when Rogers’ daughters, one of whom lives with a learning disability, were singled out by a second-grade teacher on suspicion that their family did not truly live at the address they listed when the twins enrolled at Wood Gormley. The school’s then-principal, Douglas Moser, directed faculty via email at the beginning of the last school year to compile lists of students they suspected to be in violation school zoning rules. Teachers were instructed to report students who might not live within the school’s designated boundaries or otherwise have permission to attend the school through the district’s competitive interzone transfer process.
The experiences of Rogers and her daughters offers a glimpse into Santa Fe Public Schools’ sparse guidance for how administrators should identify students who are attending schools outside their officially zoned boundaries.
The district superintendent and several school board members tell SFR they’re surprised by correspondence between elementary school officials showing what appears to an effort to target certain students: undocumented children at one school and one family at another. The practice, which one official says traces back to the previous superintendent, has the potential to limit some students’ access to a chance at a better education.
Rogers, whose disputes with staff and parents associated with Wood Gormley were previously reported in the Santa Fe New Mexican, contacted SFR in August to tell her story. Separately, SFR requested email correspondence from the district as part of our overall investigation into the transfer system and how the district patrols families who misrepresent their address to enroll in top schools. Those public records included Moser’s email to Wood Gormley faculty, which validated Rogers’ claim that the school took a special interest in removing her daughters.
Current school officials say previous leadership appears not to have kept track of how many students were asked to leave due to falsifying their home addresses, but the school’s reputation for protecting its boundaries are known among advocates. In September, Wood Gormley was named a Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education, a coveted accolade given to schools whose standardized test scores show high academic achievement or progress among students.
Through a district spokesperson, the school’s current principal, Laura Jeffery, says she did not instruct faculty to compile similar lists this year, and maintains that school officials have not visited homes this year to verifyaddresses.
But for Rogers, whose son still attends Wood Gormley, difficulties stemming from last year persist. Nobody from the district will speak with her except a designated representative—not even her childrens’ teachers. It’s left her feeling isolated and like a criminal.
Across the country, some school districts are taking greater means of pursuing and even punishing “boundary-hoppers,” or families who lie about their home addresses in order to send their kids to better schools.
In at least seven states, parents have been prosecuted for boundary-hopping. While the force of law could theoretically be used to extricate students from a school in New Mexico, SFPS officials who spoke to SFR could not recall a time when police were called to compel removal.
Parents often boundary-hop as a way to enroll their children in more academically enriching schools than the ones for which they are zoned to attend. In much of the United States, schools are financed largely through local property taxes, meaning schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to be less well-resourced.
In contrast, only 16.6 percent of funding for school districts across New Mexico comes from property taxes; 70 percent of public schools’ operating funding comes from the state. (The rest is federal funding.) But research shows that similar inequalities between neighborhood schools exist in Santa Fe as elsewhere.
The three schools that scored an “A” on state rankings at least twice in the last three years—Carlos Gilbert, Acequia Madre and Wood Gormley, all elementary schools—serve neighborhoods located in some of the wealthiest census tracts in the city. Wood Gormley’s zone overlaps four different tracts that have a combined median income of $63,500, according to government maps of 2013 data.
Even though SFPS has a policy of open enrollment that should in theory lead to greater school choice for families regardless of income, a 2016 academic report by education doctoral candidate April Bo Wang, who conducted her professional residency in Santa Fe, found that the registration process “does not necessarily translate to de facto school choice.” On the whole, poor kids in Santa Fe attend underperforming schools while wealthy kids stay at high-achieving schools.
The district reports the number of students who requested to transferdropped from 2,091 last school year to 1,367 this year. Only half the students’ requests were granted this year.
Wang, who know works at a nonprofit youth writing organization in Boston, found that during the 2015-2016 school year only 65 percent of Wood Gormley students lived in the school’s official neighborhoods—among the lowest percentage of any other school in the district. And even though the school is already zoned to serve a high-income area, students who transferred into the school from other zones were also from relatively wealthy areas.
“The number of low-income students at those schools is lower, and the number of [English language learner] students is lower, and the number of low-income and ELL students among transfers to Wood Gormley was lower than you would expect,” Wang told SFR in April.
The results of her study led Wang to conclude that the students who wound up transferring out of low-performing schools in the district tended to be native English speakers and identify as either white or non-recent immigrant Hispanic. They were also more likely to hail from higher-income families, leading to a concentration of privileged students at high-achieving schools.
Through 50 interviews with students, teachers and principals, Wang also found that a “significant negative bias” exists in SFPS toward recent immigrants. Although there is no official record of how many immigrants attend local schools, they are more likely to be ELL and lower-income, proxy measures that Wang used in her study. Those students were the least represented at high-ranking elementary schools like Wood Gormley, Acequia Madre and Atalaya.
Structurally, strict requirements for documents to prove a student’s home address were biased against families whose housing situation was fluid and who did not have easy access to Internet and telephonic communications, Wang found.
However, school superintendent Dr. Veronica Garcia tells SFR that since she took the helm of the district last school year, she’s eased requirements for registration so that parents and guardians only need to present one document as proof of residency, such as a utility bill, lease agreement or mortgage agreement, though she says some “very crowded schools” can ask parents to present two proofs of residence.
SFPS board member Steve Carrillo says that the district embarked on a “concerted and aggressive effort” to enforce boundary rules at the start of former superintendent Joel Boyd’s tenure in 2012.
That effort, he says, targeted families “suspected … to have committed fraud to get kids into schools,” and the district “stepped up home visits and mechanisms by which we would identify families and then let them know their options for their home schools where they’re zoned for.”
One focus of that campaign, Carrillo says, were the parents of students who had political contacts that they leveraged to get students enrolled in top schools.
SFPS does not keep a record of students who have violated boundary rules, so it is difficult to know the overall demographic profile of students found to be in violation of boundary rules. But in at least one school during the 2015-2016 school year, an administrator was concerned specifically that undocumented students were misrepresenting their home addresses to attend the school.
Emailed correspondence obtained by SFR shows that El Camino Real Academy Assistant Principal Kristy Dillingham told former Wood Gormley Principal Linda Besett in August 2015 that she had “a strong suspicion that many families are using friends and families [sic] addresses to get into [El Camino Real].”
“I am very concerned and nervous, especially with so many undocumented families at our school,” Dillingham wrote to Besett, who advised her colleague on the most effective times to conduct home visits—something Besett learned over her eight years as principal at Wood Gormley.
El Camino was overcrowded at the beginning of that school year, and its staff sent letters home to families advising them that it would conduct random home visits “in order to validate and update registration information or to assess the validity of an attendance zone residence.” The letter was based on a template that administrators at Wood Gormley and Amy Biehl Community School in Rancho Viejo had sent home to parents.
It indicated that El Camino would rely on “the force of law” so that families would “not develop the misconception that [boundary-hopping was] discretionary/flexible if they game the system.”
Dillingham, who is now the principal at a community school in Arkansas, writes to SFR in an email that she and the school’s principal did not conduct any home visits that school year because they “were not comfortable with the process for home visiting due to the families we served.”
An SFPS spokesperson tells SFR that that no law enforcement action has been considered during the current superintendent’s tenure, but couldn’t provide an answer about similar past activity.
Kristin Greer Love, a staff attorney with ACLU of New Mexico, said it would be difficult to prove whether zoning enforcement broadly violated students’ civil rights.
“If it turns out that SFPS is enforcing residency requirements for students of color, but not white students, we would definitely be interested in investigation,” wrote Love, who happens to also be a former Wood Gormley parent. “We would need to show a pattern where students of color or undocumented students were unfairly targeted. That would be difficult to do without hearing about the experience of specific students.”
Besides the Wang study and other anecdotal observations, no other evidence so far shows of a patterns of discrimination. But Israel Francisco Haros Lopez, the liaison for homeless high school students through the Adelante program in Santa Fe, which provides assistance for precariously housed students, says that prejudice exists in the schools.
“Just because we have that [sanctuary] status, we want to pretend that certain things don’t happen here; we’re still in the same realities,” says Lopez.
Rogers’ children are not undocumented, and her family is solidly middle-class.
But the trajectory of her and her family's experience at Wood Gormley can be traced in a unique way to former principal Moser's directive that teachers "compile and email a grade level list of students whom [they] suspect to be in violation of zone rules."
Moser sent the email on Aug. 24, 2016, a week after students' first day of school.
The Rogers home is not in the Wood Gormley area, but because her older son had been able to transfer into the school several years ago, she believed that her daughters would be enrolled also. The family's neighborhood school received an "F" ranking from the state last year, but SFPS only gives transfer priority to students who have both a sibling enrolled at the desired school and whose zoned schools received an F twice within the last four years.
After officials denied Rogers' request for her daughters to be transferred into Wood Gormley before the start of the last school year, she rented a small property within the school's boundaries that they did not live in, then enrolled the girls using documents listing that address. School officials discovered this during a home visit last October, but Rogers says she already felt singled out at the start of the school year by her daughter's second-grade teacher, Chantal Tynes.
"The first day of school, this teacher kind of started making faces at me and telling me this is not going to work out," Rogers claims. "This teacher was not really wanting my child."
Public documents bear out the narrative that the school took a keen interest in her daughters.
"Just a reminder," Tynes wrote to Moser on Sept. 27."Is there word from the district regarding the Rogers twins? Have they been allowed an interzone transfer? Are they staying at Wood Gormley for the remainder of the year?"
Moser replied that he had made another inquiry and was awaiting a response.
SFR’s attempts to contact both Moser and Tynes were unsuccessful. Tynes is no longer employed with the district, while Moser* currently works as a digital communications specialist in the district’s main office.
Meanwhile, faculty and administrators were treating Rogers with increasing hostility, the emails show.
On Sept. 7, the school's case manager, Jolene Vasquez, sent an email to administrative assistant LeeAnn Archuleta warning that Rogers was disrupting instruction in a classroom. In fact, as Vasquez admitted in a later email, the visit by Rogers had been pre-scheduled.
The next day, Vasquez emailed Moser, asking if the school could give Rogers a copy of a special education textbook in order to tutor her daughter at home.
Moser's reply three days later was blunt: "No[.]" And later that month, emails show that a different teacher abruptly disinvited Rogers' daughters from a tutoring program.
Over the course of the next few months, the emails show degrading relations between Rogers and school officials. Eventually, Wood Gormley Parent Teacher Club President Amy Fairchild filed a restraining order against Rogers, which was granted on April 3.
Around that time, Rogers, who is from Brazil, also reported an anonymous threat she received through the mail that read, in part: "Get your brood of deformed children out of our schools. Go back to your country of oversexed Brazillian perverts. People are watching you."
Santa Fe police have not filed charges against any suspects in that incident.
Today, Rogers' two daughters attend a different high-achieving school. She says that even though the restraining order was only a personal one between herself and Fairchild, the school has also kept her at arm's length, filtering its contact with her through a representative.
"The way the district is acting toward me, it's as if they have the restraining order toward me," she says, noting that the court only imposed an order between her and Fairchild. "They have taken the law into their own hands, by telling me you cannot come to this school, you have to be escorted by the principal."
Rogers insists that she's been on the receiving end of a conspiracy by SFPS employees and other parents to malign her character. Regardless of the veracity of those claims, Principal Moser's directive that teachers compile lists of students they suspect to be attending schools improperly has exposed the need for more guidance when it comes to regulating boundary-hoppers, says Superintendent Garcia.
"We have not sent a directive [to principals] to compile lists; what they should be doing is to be vigilant that when students register, they provide the appropriate proof of residency," she tells SFR. "But the fact that you're bringing this to my attention makes it clear that perhaps we need to clarify with our principals to make sure it's a fair criteria that is being set for everyone, [and] it's not just based on a suspicion."
After reviewing several emails SFR obtained through a records request, SFPS Board Vice President Maureen Cashmon wrote to SFR that she was "concerned with some of the information."
"Please rest assured we strive to have an open enrollment policy that meets the needs of our community," Cashmon writes in an email. "It is important that this process is transparent and equitable."
Board members Linda Trujillo and Lorraine Price, as well as Kate Noble,who has also launched a campaign for mayor, also did not respond to requests for comment.
For Rogers, the damage is already done. She believes her children are traumatized by the very public and painful events that took place over the last school year. Her daughters did not make educational progress last year based on their PARCC scores, something for which Rogers blames the hostility at Wood Gormley and the school district.
"I feel very stressed out," she says. "And I believe a lot of parents in this community feel the same way."
Editor's note:An earlier version of this story stated that Douglas Moser, a former principal at Wood Gormley Elementary School, was no longer employed with the district. This is incorrect; he currently works as a digital communications specialist for Santa Fe Public Schools. We apologize for the error.