Poverty & New Mexico's State Charter Schools

This is the fourth in a five-part series as a follow up to my initial research on district and state charter school grades in New Mexico. Find the first three parts here, here, and here.

For this fourth installation, I shift focus to state charters, where we find a different story yet again. Looking at schools above the state FRL average of 67.92 percent, we find eight "A/B"s - three "A"s and five "B"s, serving a total of 1,481 students. Let that sink in. When looking at high FRL populations, state charters, with less than 5 percent of all New Mexico students, have more students in "A/B" seats than districts, which account for the remaining 94 percent. That should stagger you to read.

Again, charters are no panacea, but the data suggests we have many which are drawing new realities for our neediest students. Below are all state charters above the state median FRL.

State Charters Above NM Median FRL

Among these lighthouse schools (as I like to call them as they beckon us to new shores) is Mission Achievement and Success (MAS) in Albuquerque. With over 800 students, MAS is the second largest "A" LEA and also has 93.70 percent FRL. (Los Alamos is the largest LEA to earn an "A", though is far less diverse than NM at large and has an FRL rate of 16 percent.) Not only that, 84 percent of MAS students identify as American Indian, African American, or Hispanic. See that lone blue line at the top left? That's MAS, which has received both national and local attention recently.

As the founder and principal JoAnn Mitchell will tell you, there is no "secret sauce" to their success. Rather, much like T or C, there is a focus on a set of core values and commitment to results:

  1. Provide teachers high-quality, data-driven professional development;

  2. Hire teachers with a desire to teach and to continuously learn;

  3. Set and uphold a positive learning culture with high expectations for students;

  4. Embrace the struggle - not everything comes easy, growth comes from adversity; and

  5. Hard work is the baseline - teachers and students commit to longer school days.

JoAnn and her staff will tell you that MAS isn't for every student or teacher. That's the point. Schools shouldn't be built to regress to the mean or teach to the lowest common denominator. We know many of our students require varied learning experiences and programs many districts can't, don't, or won't provide.

Responding to the specific needs of their students, while also holding high expectations, MAS has longer days and provides three meals a day to all students. All this in an environment where charter schools receive much less per student than districts. Yet, we see the Legislative Finance Committee constantly seek to strip funding and resources from these types of schools in order to score cheap political points. In fact, at the December 7th LFC meeting I heard several members make ill-informed claims about funding for charter schools. And, yes, I have the receipts on who said what.

As a leader, I share with staff and students alike that we always need to take a moment to celebrate our successes but we cannot linger in the moment for too long because we know there is more work to be done, and after all each success simply provides us the confidence and the fuel needed to forge ahead to the next.
— JoAnn Mitchell, Founder & Principal of MAS in Albuquerque

The staff at MAS are also clear about where they want to improve. With reading and math proficiencies below 50 percent, they see ample opportunities to raise the bar. This is what most excites me. While students at MAS have growth rates well beyond other schools in New Mexico, there is still a deep commitment to continuous improvement. Laurels are not rested upon here.

You won't hear, "Well, 94 percent of our kids are poor so they shouldn't be reading or doing math." That sort of prejudiced thinking drives me up the wall. Rather at MAS I hear staff say they are proud of their work, but are even more excited about the progress ahead.

We often say at MAS that this cycle [of learning and improvement] is not sexy or glamorous, instead it tedious and mundane, but the results lie here. They come through the commitment to continuous improvement. There is a difference between interest and commitment and we believe this. When you are interested in something, you do it when it’s convenient; when you are committed, you do it long after the interest is gone. You accept no excuses, only results. At MAS we are committed to our results for students.
— JoAnn Mitchell, Founder & Principal of MAS in Albuquerque

Huge kudos to MAS and their staff for helping prove that demographics aren't destiny and that those who say poor children can't learn are dead wrong. New Mexico needs to replicate more homegrown schools like MAS and focused districts like T or C. The good news? Recently the PEC approved MAS to open a second school site in the fall of 2018. This means hundreds more students will have the opportunity attend a school that believes in their potential and helps them fulfill it.

I commend the PEC for their landmark decision to expand MAS. Thanks to them Albuquerque will have many more residents ready to lead lives of their own choosing, contributing to our rich culture and emerging economy. For me, the best antidote to crime is opportunity. This is precisely what schools like MAS and the Albuquerque Institute of Math & Science (AIMS) provide their students. And we need many more of them.

Obstacles to Growth

State charter school leaders face significant head winds to scaling up. State policy and statute incentivize schools to stay small. First, they are held to enrollment caps. (Even with approval for expansion, MAS faces a cap of 1100 or so students.) Second, schools are provided a "small-size adjustment" meant to help those that start out small, but which also discourages growth for fear of losing the subsidy. Lastly, and most egregiously, districts fight tooth and nail against charters to maintain their unearned monopolies over students.

Take the case of the Albuquerque Institute of Math and Science (AIMS) in Albuquerque, led by Kathy Sandoval-Snider. As told by the Albuquerque Journal, then Mayor Marty Chavez and Sandoval-Snider fought for the very existence of AIMS, first against APS and now against Rio Rancho, from the start.

All this despite AIMS being rated as one of the best high schools not only in New Mexico, but the world. AIMS is currently locked in a years-long battle to open a second campus in Rio Rancho. Why is Rio Rancho, a "B" district, so fearful of AIMS? Is the competition just that scary? Do Rio Rancho parents not deserve more options for their students? These are the farcical battles districts wage that show them to be far more interested in bottom lines than the best interests of students.

Other Stories of Hope

I also want to point out the other "A/B" state charters above the median FRL rate, including: Roots and Wings Community, Taos Academy Charter, Gilbert L Sena High, Dził Ditł'ooí School of Empowerment, Action and Perseverance (DEAP), Taos Integrated School for the Arts, Red River Valley, and Walatowa Charter High. These schools tend to serve high populations of Hispanic and American Indian students, which I commend.

I don't yet know much else about these seven schools, but am eager to learn more. DEAP and Walatowa, for example, are the only LEAs with more than 20 percent American Indian students receiving above a "C". Meanwhile Taos has not one but two schools with above average FRL (and diverse students) getting an "A" or "B". There are pockets of success all across New Mexico we should study from and build upon.

Tomorrow, this New Mexican brings this series to a close with final thoughts on how we might move forward and the battles still on our horizon.