Bursting at the Seams
It's Westside overcrowding at its worst, and one elementary school is smack dab in the middle of a debate between parents and APS about how to cope
It's almost hidden in a maze of desert and sand-colored houses. At 554 90th Street SW, rooted on baked earth and asphalt, sits an unfinished school, 57 portable classrooms and 1,160 kids.
Edward Gonzales Elementary, designed to handle 750 students, opened in August 2004 and was overcrowded from the start. It's the largest elementary in the district. And Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt estimates that before long, the number of students will hit 1,600.
Seas of houses butt up against the boundaries of Edward Gonzales, which is one of many schools bearing the brunt of strained Westside resources. There's no gym. Grades two through five are taught in the barracks. Staggered lunch periods begin at 10 a.m. and last until 1 p.m.
"Things are better than last year," says Tom Heady, a councilor at Edward Gonzales. “[At that time], we didn't have near enough portables. We'd have classes in the libraries and hallways."
Though debate is unending about the best solution for a school bursting at the seams, there's one thing parents, staff and Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) can agree on: Something needs to be done.
To solve the overcrowding problem, APS and a boundary committee kicked around the idea of building an elementary at another site about two miles away. But, according to Everitt, the idea was rejected because no one wanted the community to be divided by sending area kids to two campuses.
Land is the one thing Edward Gonzales does not have a shortage of; the school sits on 15 acres and is next to 10 more that APS owns. The district has opted to build a second school on the adjacent lot, scheduled to open in August 2008. It would be an independent facility, with its own gym, playground and cafeteria.
One school would instruct kindergarten through second grade, and the other would be responsible for third-graders and up. To finish Edward Gonzales, scheduled for completion about a year from now, the district has socked away $4 million; it also has $14 million on hand to build the new elementary.
Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) members began hearing rumors of the second school about two months ago, says Jessica Venegas, an assistant secretary of the PTO. "They never contacted the parents,” Heady says. “They had not gotten any input from the staff, except for the principal." PTO member Maria Ramirez agrees, saying parents were left out until they started making a fuss about two weeks ago. It's a problem, Heady says, that's chronic when it comes to Westside schools. "The central administration decides things without knowledge of what they are affecting.”
PTO President Lorraine Torres-Sena says parental input has not been asked for or considered. “I certainly hope it's not that we're a poor part of the city,” she says. “But parents are coming to me and asking, ’Is it because we are?'”
And so on March 10, in the middle of a workday, parents flooded Edward Gonzales for a meeting with the superintendent to make their voices heard. It was also the first time many found out about the possibility of two administrations. But David Galaviz, who has a second-grader at Edward Gonzales and who attended the meeting, says he doesn't feel much was accomplished. “It was just a dog-and-pony show,” he says, “with a lot of disagreeing and a lot of shouting.”
Galaviz is one of many parents who doesn't want the campus to be split into two schools, as he believes it will divide the community and could lower the quality of education students receive. Ramirez agrees. "It's a stupid idea," she says, adding that she especially doesn't like the idea of dividing up the grades.
But not everyone thinks two schools are a bad idea. Robert Lucero, schoolboard member for the Westside, calls it a "smaller learning community environment"—a term that has nothing to do with the population of a class or school. With an eventual 1,600 students at both schools, there would be about 800 students each.
Lucero says dividing elementary schools into smaller age groupings of kindergarten through second grade and third through fifth grade is not uncommon in other states. "[In this model], kids have an option to be with their age demographics," he says. "Teachers can work together better. Strong education in lower age demographics gives them a head start. That's going to be a big plus."
Ramirez, who has a third-grader at Edward Gonzales, says she isn't so sure. The best solution, she says, is to just expand the school. "I know they need to name it like they're building another school to get the money," she says. "But I really don't see the point of separating the kids. The superintendent said, 'You don't want your little kindergartner to be around big fifth-graders,' but haven't we been doing that all our lives?"
Parents seem to like Michael Carrillo, the principal at Edward Gonzales. Some like him so much, they hate the idea of a second administration. "We need to keep one administration and hire more people to staff it," Galaviz says.
But Principal Carrillo says he's not a masochist. "I don't need to have one big school," he says. "The superintendent wants two schools and two separate administrations, and that's fine with me. It will work as long as it's somebody that will work with me. With the PTO on the hiring committee for the new principal, I'm certain that's going to be one of the considerations."
Still, parents fear the trouble that could come with having a child in each school: the messy traffic and hassle of different drop-off and pick-up times; different discipline policies; a curriculum that doesn't transition smoothly from one school to the next. But Everitt says all of those concerns can be addressed. "[The schools] would work as companions," she says.
Everitt adds that APS has to make arrangements that will stand for 50 years or more. Therefore, she says, they cannot design long-term policy for the twin schools based solely on Carrillo. "When something happens, parents want to talk to the principal. With that many kids, it just wouldn't be possible."
Today, the site of the second school is just a familiar collection of dirt and tumbleweeds with a skyline of houses. The contract to build the second school has not yet been put out for bid. An architect has not been hired.
The next thing that needs to happen, Everitt says, is a meeting between parents and an APS architect, though this architect won't be the person hired to design the new school. This meeting, intended to get parent input on the new building, has not yet been scheduled.
Lucero says within the next three weeks, an architect should be on board. "The most important thing as a boardmember is [making sure] the community is part of the decision-making process and kept as a whole," he says.
"If you want people to buy in, they need to be heard," Carrillo says. "It's a fundamental right for our kids to have a good education. Extra conveniences help create that environment, that atmosphere."
Those conveniences—classrooms, gyms, equipment—have become a rallying point for Westside residents.
Rebecca Cruz, an interim art teacher who has worked with APS for 10 years, says Edward Gonzales is the biggest school she's ever worked at. "This overcrowding is only happening at Westside schools," she says. "We need a team effort from teachers and community [to fix it]."
But Venegas, who has a fifth-grader at Edward Gonzales and another child who will begin kindergarten next year, says she just doesn't trust APS.
"Your hands are tied," she says. "They make you feel like you're just a parent. ’We're the board, and you're the parent.' I don't see their kids at that school. I feel like this is our school. This is our community, and they're wanting to disrupt us."
Carrillo says the school can become a center for the blooming community, if things are done right. "There are a lot of neighborhoods around that school, but as a neighborhood, it hasn't come together yet. School is an entity that creates community."
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