Few topics stir up as much emotion among Santa Fe parents as school closures. In November, when the Board of Education for Santa Fe Public Schools proposed to consolidate Nava and EJ Martinez elementary schools and close Acequia Madre, hundreds of teachers, parents and students packed school board meetings to plead for their schools to remain open.

To their relief, the board didn't make the call. Instead, it adopted a resolution by Board President Kate Noble to conduct a comprehensive study on how to improve equity and "reimagine" the district to better meet the needs and desires of students.

"Educational equity is the intentional allocation of resources, instruction, and opportunities according to need," the plan reads in part. It's a lofty effort to ensure every student can "succeed in school and life," recognizing that students start in different places and have different opportunities based on factors including race and economic status.

A well-traveled and oft-adapted meme shows the task ahead for Santa Fe Public Schools: How to imagine the system, and allocate resources, for the best view for all.
A well-traveled and oft-adapted meme shows the task ahead for Santa Fe Public Schools: How to imagine the system, and allocate resources, for the best view for all. | Angus Maguire / Interaction Institute for Social Change

A meme circulating among educators illustrates the concept: In two side-by-side images, three children of different height watch a baseball game from behind a fence. In the first, each child stands on an equal sized box to help them see. For the tallest child, the box is unnecessary. For the child in the middle, it provides just the right boost. But the smallest child still can't see, even with the box. In the second image the tallest kid doesn't get a box at all and the smallest kid gets two, so that all three are at the same height and can see comfortably.

This is the difference between equality and equity: How big are the boxes and who gets them?

It's one way to explain the district's task to give every student the same view—an effective education.

The board has put off closure decisions twice before in the last decade only to revive them at a later date, and critics argue the district has convened numerous committees and studies that have led to little meaningful change.

This month, SFPS Superintendent Veronica Garcia talked to the school board about how she wants to craft the study. Members voted to hold a "study session" before taking a vote.

November's proposal was the first time that the district has considered closures when it was not in a financial crisis. Former board member Maureen Cashmon, who introduced the idea at the end of her elected term, says the time for hard choices is before the next crisis hits and demographic trends make eventual closures inevitable.

As Santa Fe ages and the birth rate continues to drop, SFPS predicts it will likely have to contend with a declining student population, which means less per-student money from the state each year. The population of young families is moving rapidly south as the northeastern part of the city becomes less and less affordable, and the district is also losing students to charter and private schools. Long-standing inequities have begun to improve in the last decade, yet they still plague the district. These factors are the baseline for the district's study, which, if approved by the school board, will take place over the next year.

Repeated cycle, missing process

The elementary schools targeted for potential closure in November were on the list primarily because of their aging facilities and declining enrollment. They're on the north side of the city and have far fewer students than their counterparts across town.

Yet, the school board has been erratic and reactionary in its approach to closing schools. For many parents and administrators, the lack of a set of best practices for the decisions remains frustrating.

Alexandra Van Camp, who teaches sixth grade at EJ Martinez, tells SFR about a day four years ago when the school board notified parents and students the school was slated for closure. It was a Monday—the same day students began standardized PARCC testing. The following year, the district cited low test scores as a reason the school should again be on a closure list. This time around, neither parents nor administrators at any of the schools up for consolidation were notified until just days before the vote.

The most recent elementary closures were actually executed a decade ago, when in 2010, the school board consolidated Kaune, Alvord, and Larragoite into Aspen Community Magnet School, a K-8 that opened at the site of the vacant Alameda Middle School on the city's west side. The decision came as the school board sought to trim $6.9 million from its budget due to a shortfall in state funds. Other proposals for cuts included slashing hours for nurses, art programs and athletics, as well as increasing class sizes.

Officials estimated that closing the three small elementary schools would save the district $1 million per year.

Aspen Community School opened after the district closed and combined three other schools.
Aspen Community School opened after the district closed and combined three other schools. | Katherine Lewin

But the new school that came out of the consolidation also got off to a rocky start. According to an analysis by SFR in 2011, Larragoite would have received an A under a newly adopted statewide ranking system and Alvord would receive a B, based on the proficiency levels of their students. Aspen maintained a D rating until 2017, when the state stopped using the grading system for schools. Proficiency on standardized test scores continues to hover around 15-17%, which is about average for the district.

To some worried parents of students at the schools proposed for closure last November, these numbers present a cautionary tale of all that could go wrong if their children are moved into a bigger consolidated school.

Class size and personal interaction with adults are among factors that educators say matter for student success.
Class size and personal interaction with adults are among factors that educators say matter for student success. | Katherine Lewin

Teachers who went through the consolidation process say the reality is more complicated. Vivian Vigil and Carmina Armijo both teach third grade at Aspen. Before the consolidation, Vigil taught kindergarten at Larragoite and Armijo taught special ed at Alvord.

They tell SFR the consolidation did not have as much of an impact on the overall academic performance of students as the redrawing of boundaries for which students would attend the school later, bringing in children at varied academic achievement levels.

"Of course it took a little time to get used to bringing these schools together and things were a little difficult in the transition," says Vigil, "but what impacted us most was the rezoning, because it really changed the demographics of the school."

Armijo says one of the things that worked best was letting the kids and staff from each school meet ahead of the consolidation. Next time around, she says, she would make this an even more intentional process.

Whether the consolidation was a success or a failure is difficult to say. The school took on innovative endeavors such as a science-literacy curriculum supported by the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation and was able to maintain more full-time support staff. The $1 million in operational budget savings is hard to track because the district spent the money keeping nurses and teachers employed and programs afloat.

In 2010 the school board also considered consolidating Acequia Madre and Atalaya, a move that could have saved the district thousands. Yet the board voted to postpone the matter. Acequia Madre had already been slated for closure in 2006 until parents brought the issue to the attention of then Gov. Bill Richardson, who told his secretary of education to instruct SFPS not to close the school. At the time, board member Frank Montaño told SFR this was 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."

The board once again considered closing Acequia Madre in 2017, but it remained open to survive the next challenge in 2019.

The choices have Andrea Rivera's head spinning.

"The district says students should be able to learn in small schools, but it's like that only applies to some kids," says Rivera, the parent of a student at Nina Otero Community School. "I love our school, but it's definitely larger than the district's own stated ideal size for good learning, and I think we should get some more of the resources they spend on small schools and old buildings."

Rivera is referring to a resolution the school board adopted in 2010 that set an aspirational limit of 450 students for elementary schools and 380 for the K-5 portion of community schools. She says she learned about the document when a family member whose children attend a smaller eastside school got a copy of the resolution during November's closure debates. The information stuck with her.

Last year, Nina Otero had just over 500 students enrolled in it's K-5 classes south of Jaguar Drive. The other schools whose enrollment was over the recommended limit last year are Piñon, Amy Biehl, Ramirez Thomas, Sweeney and El Camino Real—all Southside schools. At most of them, the entire student body receives free lunches because of low family income levels. Acequia Madre only has 155 students, with only 22.4% eligible for free lunch.

"It just seems like it's the kids at these bigger schools who probably need that money more," Rivera adds.

Inequities between Santa Fe schools are not as stark as they once were. In 2007, SFR reported that Piñon Elementary, a Southside school with 700 students, and Alvord, an east side school with only 120 students, were allotted the same number of computers.

This is one of the reasons Mary Ellen Gonzales, who sat on the school board in 2010 and voted to consolidate Alvord with Larragoite and Kaune, says she still thinks she made the right decision.

"It was the most equitable choice we had," she says. "Those cuts had to come from somewhere, and there was a huge imbalance already between the schools we closed and the schools on the Southside."

Yet, nearly 15 years later, the imbalance still has a corrosive impact.

The feeder effect

While school closure and crowding fights are most prominent at the elementary school level, student performance disparities only grow more evident as students move into upper grades.

Four out of five of Santa Fe's elementary and K-8s with the highest PARCC proficiency scores in math and English are the wealthiest, whitest schools in the district. At these schools, less than 22% of students qualify for free lunch and fewer than 6% are learning English as a second language. Piñon Elementary is the notable exception.

At the schools with the lowest test scores, up to 95% of students are Hispanic, and at some schools, more than half are learning English. At all but one of the schools at the bottom of the list, 100% of students receive free lunch.

These inequities are further compounded at the middle school and high school level.

Students listen to instruction during a math lesson at Capital High School. The school principal says equity problems at elementary schools compound as the schools feed into the high school.
Students listen to instruction during a math lesson at Capital High School. The school principal says equity problems at elementary schools compound as the schools feed into the high school. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

Four of the five elementary and community schools that feed into Capital High School are significantly larger than the district's limit. At all five schools, 100% of the students receive free lunch.

Many principals agree that equity fixes should focus on elementary and middle schools to ensure that all students are adequately prepared for high school.

Jaime Holladay, the principal of Capital High School, says many freshman arrivals at the school are not ready.

"They need to look at making sure that our middle schools and our K-8s have teachers, especially in the core content," Holladay tells SFR. "It's been a struggle for us when we have students coming from feeders where they haven't had math teachers."

Holladay says students coming from middle schools without teachers in core subjects not only start high school with a skill deficit, but often also have more -behavioral issues.

Ortiz Middle School, which serves about 600 students on the Southside and feeds into Capital High, has a total of eight teacher vacancies and is missing math teachers for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Once in high school, students must pass algebra in order to graduate.

Aspen, which feeds to Santa Fe High, also started the school year with a vacancy for a math teacher that Principal Tina Morris says she is still trying to fill. She says the school has hired two math teachers in Albuquerque with whom students can message and Skype during class.

"The lessons are structured and instruction is individually tailored, but there's not a live person up there dealing with the social-emotional piece that's -really important as well. So the teacher shortage is critical right now," Morris says.

SFPS started the 2019-2020 school year with 32 teacher vacancies. Teachers and principals tell SFR it's detrimental for lots of reasons; among them, that having a personal relationship to an adult at school is critical to success for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

To close the achievement gap, "kids need the opportunity to be individually supported at the academic level they are at," in addition to grade-level instruction, says Jule' Skoglund, the principal at Salazar Elementary.

Salazar is among the eight schools with the lowest test scores in the district. The small elementary school is located in Midtown and serves some of the highest-need populations in the city. All of its students receive free lunch, and Skoglund tells SFR that between 15 and 20% of them are technically homeless.

Skoglund says when Salazar got a grant for individualized after-school tutoring, students in the program rapidly improved their academic achievement and were more likely to reach grade level expectations.

"If there's one thing that I think could close the achievement gap for high risk students, it's more funding for individualized tutoring and small group learning," she tells SFR.

New study, old problem

Skoglund is on the school district's Equity Council made up of educators, administrators, and vested community members. In the last year, the state required all school districts to have an equity council in response to a court ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez case that determined New Mexico has failed to provide an adequate education to minority and disadvantaged students. Santa Fe's equity council began before the state mandate, however, and Skoglund says it will continue its work alongside the committee that will oversee the district's new study.

The council's priority has been to look at data that's already available to understand what key risk factors impact a student's likelihood to succeed in school. These factors include English as a second language, poverty level, discipline violations, the number of days a student is absent during the year, trauma and instability in the home, just to name a few.

The more risk factors a student has, the more support they need to overcome their obstacles and reach grade level. Skoglund says the Equity Council will present its findings to the steering committee for the new study once it has been assembled. She says she firmly believes Superintendent Garcia will guide the project towards meaningful outcomes.

However, Ben Gomez, the dean of students at Capital High School and a teacher in the district for 24 years, questions why the district needs to do yet another study and put together yet another committee. "What's this study actually for?…In my opinion, the numbers give a pretty clear picture of what's going on," he says, adding that the money spent on the study could be better spent helping students in need get ahead.

Gomez says if he could change one thing, he would offer a more robust vocational training program for students who do not want to go to college that would "incorporate all of the core skills—math, reading, writing—but make it relevant to something kids actually care about, teach them why their education matters."

Both Skoglund's optimism and Gomez's skepticism were reflected in conversations SFR had with educators across the district. On one hand, people are eager for change and a better system, and feel that under the current superintendent's leadership many issues in the district have already seen significant improvement. On the other, they're sick of continuous studies and committees that make big promises but never seem to lead to different results.

Across the board, these conversations also reflect a frustration with a standardized curriculum and assessment system. These are part of state and federal requirements, but the district also has a say in how much flexibility teachers have in the classroom.

"In the past few years, I thought it got a lot better," says Capital High senior Arthur Valencia. Compared to previous years, he says teachers have become "a lot more understanding" and are now "offering different ways to learn…Not everyone learns the same way, not everyone is good at the same things."

Capital student Arthur Valencia, left, and Thomas Sinte Torrez, Communities in Schools site coordinator, chat in Torrez’ office between classes.
Capital student Arthur Valencia, left, and Thomas Sinte Torrez, Communities in Schools site coordinator, chat in Torrez’ office between classes. | Leah Cantor

"If I was to run a school, it would be focused on strengths instead of weaknesses," he says. "I would try to make sure every kid got an individualized, personal needs test, instead of standardized tests…and teach kids that it's OK to mess up and try again because that's how life is."

Garcia says the main difference between the new proposal and previous efforts is the emphasis on stakeholder engagement and the district-wide scope of study.

"At the end of the day we have to take action…and follow through with the changes," Santa Fe High Principal Carl Marano tells SFR when asked what needs to happen for this study to produce meaningful results.

Garcia tells SFR she's already heard from nearly 300 people in initial stakeholder meetings. Far and wide, people told her the district does not currently have defined processes or policies for making big decisions, hasn't taken meaningful action based on the results of committees and studies of the past, and does not effectively communicate the changes it does make to parents or school administrators.

Garcia says the district needs to gather more quantitative and qualitative data about what's working and what's not, and look to the wider community for creative solutions.

When asked if it will also include studying the results of past school consolidations, she says this issue will likely play a part but that the specifics will be up to the committee.

The committee could still recommend consolidating schools. But solutions could also include keeping small schools open to share building space with other enterprises, or adopting a new transportation and transfer system to more evenly disperse students across the district.

"I'm delighted to see that they are…considering how we could restructure the whole system to make it work better for all of our students," says Tina Morris, the principal at Aspen. She's excited for an inquiry into how schools might distinguish themselves through specific offerings, becoming more like the charter school system or magnet schools.

The school board expects to focus on the proposal at a study session planned for March 23. Next, the board would convene a steering committee composed of people from each part of the school district, and an independent consultant hired by the district to organize and manage the project. Garcia says that after the steering committee is assembled they will offer opportunities for interested community members to get involved.

The study could cost the district up to $250,000. But if it can help achieve its promised end, Garcia says, "it's worth it."