Trust, But Verify: Four Charters Seek A New Home in APS

Back on October 24th, I drove over to the twin white towers in Uptown that are APS headquarters. That evening was the public hearing for four state-authorized charters asking APS to take them in, despite disappointing results. The APS board was not in attendance so the proceedings were led by charter school director, Joseph Escobedo, Ed.D. In attendance were a variety of interested parties, including students, parents, teachers, and administrators of the four schools: Academy of Trades & Technology,  Architecture Construction and Engineering (ACE) Leadership, Health Leadership, and Technology Leadership. The latter three high schools are affiliated with the Leadership High School Network and the New Mexico Center for School Leadership, which also operates Siembra Leadership High School (F), which is already under the auspices of APS.

School Grades and Student Outcomes for the Four Schools

School Grades and Student Outcomes for the Four Schools

As you can see above, these schools have struggled to deliver on the promise of education for their students. (And, of course, school grades are not the entire story of a school, but they do help provide families and policymakers with a better picture of how schools are doing.) I know many hardworking, dedicated individuals who work for and lead these schools; people I respect. However, I believe that, particularly when it comes to our kids, we can’t protect the feelings of adults over the best interests of students, especially the vulnerable students who attend these four schools. Schools must be accountable to our kids and communities, regardless of their intent.

Among the many people speaking at the input hearing that October evening was a school governing board member who said, and I quote, “Our kids can’t function in other schools and bring down other students. And when they aren’t in our school they’re out there in gangs or getting pregnant.” My jaw dropped and my stomach turned.

Instead of seeing their students as assets to be developed, regardless of their personal circumstances, this “leader” was using their identities as reasons NOT to educate them. Let me be clear, such a deficit mindset about our neediest students has zero place in education. If your mission is to educate these underserved populations and you then use that fact as the reason less than five percent of them read or write on grade level, then please exit the building.

Yes, many of our students come from poverty and traumatic environments. This poses unique and significant challenges for schools. And yet, how are we to change that reality without schools embracing the challenge and fully committing to providing all students the best education possible so they become our future community leaders? Reading and writing matter, even for schools that offer a specialized or industry-specific education. How else might one become an architect or engineer if you don't graduate high school doing both on grade level?

This is also personal. As a high school dropout who got my GED after attending Freedom High School, which is an APS alternative high school (a “B” school), I was one of those students that typical high schools failed. I, too, had an IEP, grew up in public housing, and on food stamps. I’m sure I had teachers who wrote me off as “too troubled” to learn. What a shame. If I hadn’t had an instructor at TVI (now CNM) reignite that desire to learn inside me, I’m not sure where I’d be.

Oddly enough, APS offers several alternative high schools, including the aforementioned Freedom High, which are doing quite well in delivering those crucial results for children. Clearly, APS has figured out some effective alternative schooling models and can perhaps help improve instructional practices at these four sites. The opportunity for cross-pollination appears ripe for the picking. And if APS is looking to serve more "at-risk" students, why not expand the campuses and enrollment of the successful schools they already have?

APS Already Has Some Successful Alternative High Schools

APS Already Has Some Successful Alternative High Schools

My recommendation is that APS conditionally accepts these four schools. The board should allow for a one-year authorization for each school, contingent upon them agreeing to demonstrable and meaningful academic improvement. The mission and positive motivations of these schools is clear, and now the student learning needs to match those admirable values. If at the end of next school year little or no progress is made, then APS must commit to helping each student find an appropriate and academically successful school.

Comparison of APS SAMs Schools

Comparison of APS SAMs Schools

The APS board and charter school division must also grapple with the reality that by taking in these four schools, APS graduation rates will drop by a few percentage points overall, and particularly for female and Hispanic students. For a district already struggling with some of New Mexico’s lowest graduation rates, taking on these schools MUST be dependent upon a mutual commitment to significantly improve their results. As shown in the table above, APS already has seven plus similar schools with higher graduation rates. This would be a particular liability for a board and district under so much scrutiny to improve graduation rates.

I'll add that while graduation rates are incredibly important, I might be swayed if any of these four schools shared substantive data indicating their students are entering industry careers at prolific rates. For example, how many students leave school to take positions in engineering, health, or technology AND make living wages? I fully support any school that delivers these types of results for students and sets them on productive career paths. However, the onus is on each school to demonstrate they're achieving their stated mission.

Yes, the mission and vision of a school matters greatly, and so do results. Our students and city can’t afford to have one without the other. Let’s hold ourselves and our schools accountable.