The Big Flunk
An interview with Anita Forte, the teacher at the center of APS' grade change scandal
We all talk the talk. We all say our kids need to learn that if they screw up—or screw off—there are going to be consequences. You don't show up. You don't do your work. You don't get a free pass, no matter who your parents are. The world outside the sanctuary of the classroom doesn't offer free passes. If we want our kids to become functioning members of society, the world inside the classroom shouldn't offer free passes, either.
Of course, stating principles and living up to them are two entirely different things. We all got a harsh lesson in the division between the two this year, courtesy of the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) bureaucracy, which merely talked about holding students accountable, and a Rio Grande High School English teacher named Anita Forte, who demanded her kids live up to the expectations we set for them.
The new school year starts this week. We thought now might be a good time to sit down with Ms. Forte to talk about her story as well as her views on the shortcomings of our troubled educational system. First, though, let's rehash the debacle that brought us to this point.
The whole sordid story broke last May when local media began reporting that a Rio Grande High School student's grade had been changed from an F to a D so he could graduate. The change was made at the insistence of an APS administrator, Rio Grande cluster leader Elsy Fierro, over the objections of both the student's teacher, Forte, and the high school's principal, Al Sanchez. Outgoing superintendent Beth Everitt signed off on the change.
The main reason the story got so much press is because of the student's parents. His dad is former APS board member Miguel Acosta. His mother is County Commissioner Teresa Cordova, who represents the South Valley district in which Rio Grande High School resides. The teacher's union soon filed a complaint on Forte's behalf, arguing the student's parents had exerted political influence to get the grade changed.
APS Superintendent Everitt then requested that the state education department conduct an investigation into the matter. In June, that investigation concluded the student and his parents had been properly notified—on numerous occasions—that he was failing. The report also found Forte had bent over backwards to give the student special opportunities to improve his grade, and, because of this, APS never should have gone over the teacher's head to change the grade.
Almost all observers were appalled by a scenario that seemed to suggest a student's politically powerful parents had garnered him special treatment. That feeling intensified when Wally Salata, Rio Grande's head basketball coach, went on a local talk radio show. Salata claimed he and Cordova got together on two occasions for meetings in which the coach thought they would be discussing her son's questionable eligibility for the team based on his alleged misbehavior and inadequate grades. Instead, Salata says Cordova directed the conversation toward his coaching skills and implied that if her son didn't get more play time on the court, she would make sure he lost his job. Cordova denies the charge.
It's been an ugly couple of months for Forte, but she hasn't lost any of her enthusiasm for teaching. She moved to New Mexico from Illinois in 1981 when she was 16, attending Manzano High School and UNM. She's been teaching for nine years.
“I was looking into getting married and having kids,” she says, “and I thought this would be the perfect job for having kids. So I tried it, and I loved it. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever done.”
Forte hasn't succumbed to the burnout so often suffered by public school teachers. “We've seen lots of teachers come in, do it for two or three years, then say, 'OK, that's enough. I've got to find something else to do.'”
Her view has always been that she'll continue teaching as long as it continues to fulfill her. “I have options,” she says. “I tell the kids every year: When I stop enjoying what I'm doing, I'll do something else. But it's fun, it's enjoyable, and I like the kids, and the kids like me. We have a rapport. It's good all the way around.”
Although Forte still loves teaching, this ordeal has been unnerving for her, an unwelcome distraction from her job. Still, she's largely satisfied with the way things have turned out. “For me, at least,” she says, “the press was very kind. I didn't really have to say anything.”
Most media observers took her side from the beginning, a fact that surprised her mainly because she works at a high school that's considered underperforming. “It was shocking,” she says. “It wasn't necessarily shocking to me as a teacher. It was shocking to me as a Rio Grande teacher, because people don't say very many positive things about us. My expectation would've been, 'Oh, well, it's a Rio teacher, I'm sure she must have done something wrong.'” (laughs)
That didn't happen. “When all of Albuquerque stood up,” she said, “and there wasn't any mention of where this was coming from, I was very impressed. To me at least, it means that the public doesn't necessarily look down on Rio Grande.”
Politics and Grades
When asked what role she believes the political clout of the two parents played in all this, Forte points out that in her meetings with the student's mom, Cordova didn't once mention she was a county commissioner. “I didn't know who she was until 10 days before graduation,” says Forte. “She never threw anything in my face. She was just a parent to me, concerned with her student's education.”
Yet Forte speculates the parents' political positions probably had an influence at some point in the process. “The way our society seems to work,” she says, “I'm sure either her job or her husband's job as a former member of the APS board helped in some way, shape or form. But that's just me looking from the outside, assuming that's what happened.”
Last week, Cordova stated that leaking her son's grade change to the media violated federal law, which requires schools to preserve the confidentiality of students' educational records. Cordova implied that teachers at Rio Grande High School leaked the information.
Forte agrees that in a better world the episode wouldn't have become a big media spectacle, but she also points out the student's name has never been used in any media reports. She says if the story hadn't gone public, the matter would have been buried and most likely ignored.
“I don't think anything would have happened if this hadn't been a big, splashy media show,” she says. “My personal opinion is that nothing would have happened. It would've stopped with me and APS butting heads, because they overstepped the union contract.”
A Difficult Job
Public perception of APS is at an all-time low. Years of scandals, from the six-figure contract buyout of former superintendent Brad Allison to the alcohol-related car wreck that killed lead superintendent Joseph Vigil have created a negative public perception of the school district.
Superintendent Everitt, who is leaving her position next year, has had a tough time of it, too. In addition to the grade-change fiasco, Everitt has struggled to deal with other controversies, such as a much-criticized plan to shuffle principals around the district to aid low-performing elementary and middle schools, and a scandal involving APS Police Chief Gil Lovato, who's being investigated for alleged misconduct and mismanagement. (Lovato is also suing the school district.)
“My personal opinion?” says Forte, empathizing with Everitt's plight. “APS is too big. [It's the 26th largest school district in the nation.] We're huge. How can one person take care of all that? Is it even fair that one person should have to? But then how would you split it up? From the umbrage that comes from people talking about splitting up APS, you'd think there was some kind of major surgery involved, that you might kill somebody by splitting it up.”
As far as Forte can tell, teachers in the trenches aren't getting much support from that bloated bureaucracy anyway. Her school seems to deal with the bread-and-butter problems associated with educating one of the less affluent sections of the city on its own.
Simply keeping kids in class is one of the biggest obstacles. “Attendance is huge,” Forte says. “If the kids don’t show up, you can't teach them. Last year, I had a couple kids that had 30 or 40 absences.”
Other problems are harder to pinpoint. “There are kids that are dealing with adult issues,” Forte says. “One of the things I say at the beginning of my class is that if you're having a problem, and it's something you can share with me, I understand life. Life happens. So I can make allowances for you. But for the most part a lot of kids aren't interested in sharing, so unless it's really bad, they just don't. But there's anything from teenage pregnancy to they're living in a box on the street. Some of them want help, and some of them don't.”
In the South Valley, poverty can be a major issue affecting students, but Forte says that doesn't explain every troubled situation. “Theoretically, that's what's going on,” she says. “On the other hand, there are lots and lots of these poor kids that are coming in, and they're doing just fine.”
In her opinion, the biggest problems are often associated with a lack of parental involvement. “Reading is central,” Forte says. “If we could get all of the parents to get all of their kids to read somewhere between two and five hours a week, that problem would go away. It's an issue because we have kids that have to go to work right after school, or they have to go home to watch the kids so mom can go to work right after school. So money is an issue, but if you can read, you can educate yourself. If the student gets nothing more from us than the ability to read, we've handed them a working ability that they can build on.”
Forte likes to share academic studies with her students that show that if you have an education you're generally going to make more money once you enter the workforce. “I do that with all my classes, not just the seniors, but it's pretty fresh for them because they're thinking of moving out. I had eight kids move out in the middle of the year last year. It was up close and personal for them. They knew exactly what I was talking about.”
A Brand-New Year
With just a week before school starts, Forte is still reeling from her time in the spotlight. “It took a long time for me to relax,” she says, “because things were so up in the air.”
That said, she's eager to get back in the classroom. “I've never met a student at Rio Grande who doesn't have the ability to do whatever I ask them to do in class. A number of students choose to do something else instead, and hence they fail my class. But I haven't had any stupid students come in. Not one. I don't think Rio Grande kids are any worse than anywhere else. I don't think they're any better than anywhere else. They're just students.”
Albuquerque Public Schools at a Glance
• The district is the 26th largest in the nation.
• It serves approximately 90,000 students.
• Last year, the district's budget hit the $1 billion mark.
• Due to its size, APS is broken into clusters based on its 11 high schools. The district's 12th cluster consists of its 10 alternative schools.
• According to a list released last week by the New Mexico Public Education Department, 39 percent of APS schools achieved “adequate yearly progress,” a controversial standard set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. (Rio Grande High School was not one of them.) Last year, only 35 percent of APS schools achieved adequate yearly progress.
APS Class Sizes
Kindergarten: 20 student average
Grades 1-3: 22 student average
Grades 4-5: 24 student average
Grades 6-8: 27 student average
Grades 9-12: 30 student average
APS High School Graduation Rates (by percentage, 2005-2006 school year)
1. La Cueva: 95
2. Eldorado: 95
3. Sandia: 93
4. Valley: 91
5. Cibola: 90
6. Manzano: 89
7. Del Norte: 88
8. West Mesa: 83
9. Highland: 82
10. Rio Grande: 79
11. Albuquerque: 77
12. Albuquerque Evening: 71
—compiled by Thomas Gilchrist and Steven Robert Allen