As New Mexico's Secretary of Education, Here's What I Learned Visiting All 89 of Our School Districts


Luis Sanchez // Saturno/New Mexican


by Christopher Ruszkowski

During my first week on the job last summer, teachers, superintendents, parents, and educational leaders implored me to “get out there” and talk to teachers in their classrooms, sit in desks with our students, focus on all of the positive things happening in our schools, and ensure more stakeholders have a voice in the policymaking and program development process.

After eighteen months on the road, and after visiting all 89 of New Mexico’s school districts and hundreds of schools including many of our state’s charter schools, I think back to that early encouragement with appreciation.

Our school communities across New Mexico are as vibrant as the state itself. I was there for Friday night lights in Eunice’s new football stadium, an early morning on the school bus in Newcomb in Central Consolidated, academic parent-teacher team night in Espanola, a visit to a Pre-K center in Bernalillo, a regular afternoon with the students of Columbus Elementary in Deming, the first day of a longer school year at Los Padillas Elementary in the South Valley, and a #NAEP2019 campaign launch (for the assessment that determines our national ranking) at Cien Aguas International Charter School near the ABQ Sunport earlier this fall, to name just a few.

Sec. Ruszkowski congratulates Melanie Alfaro, New Mexico’s Milken Educator Award Winner

Sec. Ruszkowski congratulates Melanie Alfaro, New Mexico’s Milken Educator Award Winner


Based on input from the field, we launched the NM-True Straight-A Express, which visited and celebrated 100+ schools in New Mexico and has now been in-place for the past two years. No district brought the noise and school spirit quite like Los Lunas, although the students and faculty of Cloudcroft held their own on top of the mountain and my recent stop in Fort Sumner showcased their fun-loving, no excuses attitude (yes, both at the same time). I was wowed by the performances (and the academic rigor) at New Mexico School for the Arts and was impressed by charter schools like the single-gender Coral Community Charter School that maximize every inch of their non-traditional facility.

“Get out there” was good advice—because it challenges so much of the wrongheaded, deficit-based, political rhetoric that we heard on the campaign trail in 2018 or that we consistently hear from the special interest groups that have been roaming the halls of the Roundhouse for decades.

Certainly no two districts and no two schools in New Mexico are the same, but many of their best practices in improving student achievement are.

There are so many schools that are demonstrating what is possible for all students regardless of socioeconomic status—perhaps most notably in the Gadsden Independent School District and at the K-12 charter school Mission Achievement and Success in Albuquerque. We must learn from them and many, many others. Certainly no two districts and no two schools in New Mexico are the same, but many of their best practices in improving student achievement are.

Whether at Jose Barrios Elementary in Silver City, San Lorenzo Elementary in Cobre Consolidated, El Capitan Elementary in Roswell or Gil Sanchez Elementary School in Belen, or within districts like Farmington and Gallup and Hobbs that have made systemic improvements, common themes emerge: the highest of expectations for all students, data-informed, data-driven practices, a growth mindset that permeates the culture and is embodied by principals and teachers, building student ownership in mastery of the content, finding ways to extend learning time beyond the traditional classroom hours, a focus on talent recruitment and development, and a spirit of innovation that coexists with the fundamentals of teaching and learning.

During this time, I’ve listened and learned about what is working in schools in New Mexico and looked to find ways to spread those lessons near and far.

And because of our collective commitment to identifying our state’s highest-performing teachers these past five years (those achieving two years of student achievement growth in single year!), I have been able to visit those teachers’ classrooms to study remarkable lessons driving significant student gains for students of all backgrounds in Tularosa, Loving, Bloomfield, Rio Rancho, and Las Cruces.

C.P. Thompson // Press Staff Photo

C.P. Thompson // Press Staff Photo


As the parallel-track NM-True Excellence in Teaching Tour began, I became even more proximate to our teachers, students, and families. Now I was attending full lessons, bell-to-bell, in the shoes of our students—a Kindergarten lesson in Jal, a high school art lesson in Socorro, a middle school math observation with a Golden Apple teacher in APS. My late afternoon classroom observation of Ms. Romero’s first-grade class in Pojoaque stands-out as some of the best early elementary instruction I’ve seen in the past decade—and a testament to how teacher quality changes students’ lives. New Mexico’s teacher leader networks are now bringing those teachers together to share practices and ideas about teaching and the teaching profession, and their excellence will continue to spread and be shared.

My team and I consistently witnessed firsthand how the state’s most successful teachers and schools are relentless about using data and measurement, unleashing innovation in during and after-school settings, and are uncompromisingly student-centered in their approaches. These teachers and schools are often times dramatically altering the life courses of students from low-income communities, and they never do it by sugar-coating but rather through honesty and love (yes, we need more of that, too).

This has been a constant reminder for us of just how much it matters for NMPED to be honest and transparent in terms of standards, assessment, and accountability — because of the civil rights, equity and economic competitiveness implications for all of New Mexico’s students. And because we saw the greatness that was possible, regardless of student background, we also felt a moral responsibility to call-out, engage, and make additional resources available when students weren’t be well-served by their schools.

I spent my days in Texico and Logan, Grady and Elida, Animas, Lovington, Portales, Corona, and Reserve—to name just a few. I spent an afternoon talking with the entire faculty of the Des Moines School District, one of the state’s highest-performing, about their quest to be #1 (they’re close, by the way). We held short roundtable discussions in Hatch Valley and Quemado, at Explore Academy and in Dora. Listening to all 89 districts meant visiting and listening to EVERYONE.

About sixty really good ideas that impacted policy, resources, and implementation in-total—and none of these ideas originated in or around the Apodaca Building, home of NMPED. Instead, they all came directly from the field.

And almost every week, I brought a handful of ideas back to NMPED in Santa Fe that came directly from an outstanding school leader or high-performing teacher across New Mexico. We listened, and we responded: adding 15 days to the instructional calendar, launching the tour of our state’s best classrooms, the first-ever Excellence in Teaching Awards, moving from three to five performance levels on our early literacy tool, revising high school graduation requirements to focus more on CTE, raising the bar for teacher preparation programs, sending more emails and information directly to teachers and families, adopting new academic standards, a deeper focus on teacher mentoring, more funds for books and buses, launching more teacher-leader networks, and dozens more.

About sixty really good ideas that impacted policy, resources, and implementation in-total—and none of these ideas originated in or around the Apodaca Building, home of NMPED. Instead, they all came directly from the field.

Our recent FY20 budget proposal to the New Mexico Legislature, the top-rated State Plan under ESSA, the expanding network of practitioners—each was formed almost entirely along vast stretches of road between schools and classrooms in our expansive and diverse state—during a time period when the best schools and the best teachers were driving educational policy. I’ve learned so much from them, and I hope that they continue to be celebrated, listened to, and learned from.


Joshua Kellogg // The Daily Times


My belief in the power and resilience of the countless teachers, families and students already doing the work of improving student outcomes has only strengthened. New Mexico’s public education system now has the potential to transform into a true learning organization— informed by data, by best practices happening at the grassroots-level in our educators’ classrooms, by leveraging the power of raising expectations, and by continuing to consistently measure student outcomes.

Additional financial investment is inevitably coming (likely totaling $1 Billion during this decade, and already halfway there), and it will be our collective responsibility to account for proven accelerated progress in the years ahead. To date, statewide, New Mexico’s student progress is unprecedented in the state’s history:

  • 11,000 more students are doing math on grade level,

  • 13,000 more students are reading on grade-level since 2015 – with Native American students improving their reading results more than any other group of students – by 8.2 percentage points,

  • More students are taking and passing Advanced Placement (AP) exams,

  • The statewide graduation rate is at an all-time high, and

  • College remediation rates are at an all-time low.

New Mexico students are, without question, on the rise.

The truth about what works is out there—it’s already happening in New Mexico—our challenge now is to ensure that it is happening everywhere, for all students, every day. With admiration and appreciation, I thank you for our service to our students. I leave this office inspired by the schools and classrooms that are redefining New Mexico’s future.

This post originally appeared on Teach Reach New Mexico and is cross-posted here with permission.