Education Reform 101
APS draws criticism over hiring of Rio Grande principal
By Ryan Floersheim
Rio Grande High School is the Albuquerque Public School system's trouble child. Years of lackluster graduation rates, well below national average GPA scores and one of the highest dropout rates in the state prompted APS in 2002 to try a radical approach to turning the school around. What has transpired since is a seesaw battle that has divided the South Valley community into two opposing factions and a situation that many say stinks of cronyism.
Two years ago, after several years of probationary status at APS, an academy system was implemented that divided Rio Grande High School into three individual programs with a principal overseeing each. Additionally, a fourth principal was in charge of school operations.
Designed to make classes smaller, it was hoped the students would get more individualized attention while emphasizing curriculum that was career oriented. In addition, more teachers were hired.
Freshmen were placed in a general education academy, and 10th through 12th graders made their way through a business guild academy, where they were taught career skills, and a science research academy. With each academy principal free to utilize a range of teaching techniques, the academy program was resoundingly successful at elevating student academic performance.
As a result, Rio Grande was removed from its APS-imposed probation less than a year later. The school's dropout rate lowered from 40 percent to just over 20 percent, according to APS figures. The school's graduation rate also increased, catching the attention of other school's in the state who considered an academy program of their own.
"It was a very positive move for the school," said Tom Garrity, APS' chief of staff. "The academies helped Rio Grande make steady progress over the past two years in rejuvenating interest in the school and in education."
However, because of the outspokenness of a group of disgruntled parents who thought the academy system needed a single authority figure who would be ultimately accountable to the parents, the program was doomed. "With four principals, nobody seemed to have any authority," said Vivian Doak, one of the outspoken parents.
The parents, not to be denied, filed a petition with the APS School Board to dismantle the academies and return the school to a one-principal system. The petition ultimately made its way to Gov. Bill Richardson.
"The program was working, but unfortunately some parents just didn't like it," said Rigo Chavez, an APS spokesman.
Other parents and many Rio Grande teachers, fearing the petitioning group had an ulterior motive of getting someone into the principal position that would bend and sway to their ideas for the school, voiced support for the academies.
"It's a sad, sad day when a group of parents who know nothing about education are allowed to make decisions regarding the future of so many children," said a Rio Grande teacher speaking on the condition of anonymity. She said she was one of more than 10 teachers who threatened to quit if the academy system was ended. "We are in the business of educating young people, and unfortunately many people have lost sight of that. There are a lot of people here that are only interested in what they can get."
After an ad hoc committee comprised of parents, teachers and APS representatives failed to reach agreement to keep a four principal system or return to a single head principal, APS Superintendent Beth Everett made the decision for them, announcing several weeks ago that the school would revert back to the one principal structure.
The parents who led opposition to the four-principal administration wanted Alfred Sanchez, the school's acting operations principal, to be named to the position immediately.
But first, Everett said the job would be posted in local newspapers and announced to principals throughout APS. Due to the rushed timeline, Everett said APS would not be able to conduct a national job search. Then, wanting the application review process to be fair and democratic, Everett called for an eight-person search committee, made of teachers, parents, a high school principal and a Rio Grande student, to select a candidate.
"It was the most democratic thing we could do," said Nelinda Venegas, associate superintendent of APS. "We tried to make the community as big a part of the decision as possible. However, we knew that no matter what happened there would be a group left unhappy."
Many community members also cried foul at the choosing of the members of the search committee. Among them was Alfred Sanchez' secretary. Venegas said APS knew this would give life to rumors of cronyism and nepotism in the process, but that it was inevitable.
"Most everyone in the South Valley is related in some way, so there's really no way around it," she said, perpetuating a stereotype that many area residents find offensive.
Sanchez' secretary later stepped down from the committee and her place was given to Yvette Griego, one of the most outspoken critics of the academy structure and a relative of Sanchez.
"My secretary didn't give Yvette Griego nothing," said Sanchez, when contacted by the Alibi last week.
Despite APS' ostensible efforts to be fair, a local watchdog group blew the whistle on what they called unethical practices by APS.
"The selection committee was in violation of the open meetings act on more than one occasion," said Bob Johnson, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government in Albuquerque.
Johnson said the committee's meetings weren't always properly advertised. "Anytime a committee has the power to reject candidates, they are making official policy and as such are subject to the open meetings laws."
Nonetheless, after weeks of interviewing potential candidates, the list was narrowed to three finalists. However, one of them withdrew his application after what some say was harassment by Sanchez supporters and the other was found to be not qualified, leaving Sanchez to win by default last week.
"It was crooked, the whole damned process was crooked," said the teacher speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Sanchez had a big part in the academy program failing. What makes anyone think he can run the school now?"
Everett opted to keep the ninth grade structure in place and to continue the career pathways program, a college-like curriculum that allows upperclassmen to focus their schooling in a certain area. She also approved the hiring of four assistant principals after Sanchez' urging and earmarked additional funding for new programs.
Sanchez' new position will bring with it a salary package worth nearly $100,000 a year, according to APS figures.
The decision has sparked a firestorm of controversy among people with a vested interest in Rio Grande High School. Venega said she is aware of instances of harassment and threats of violence between the two factions.
"I get 10 to 15 calls a day on this issue," she said. "I do my best to explain to people that we are doing what's best for the children. The bottom line is that this is not for everyone to agree on. What's important is that we do what's best for the students."
Venega said a specialist has been brought in to Rio Grande High School to ease the tensions between the groups and hopefully find a way for them to work collaboratively on improving the school.
Miguel Acosta, an APS School Board member whose district includes Rio Grande, said while the academy system was good in design, it didn't work. "There were problems with the coordination and planning," he said. Acosta said he is hopeful of Sanchez' abilities to lead Rio Grande into the future and is content Everett made the best decision when hiring him.
However, many people, including some teachers, are dismayed at what they see as a step in the wrong direction for the school.
"Nothing has changed except Sanchez' pockets have gotten a little deeper," said the teacher. "With four assistant principals pulling the school in different directions, it is the same as the academies. Except that the parents know at a moment's notice they can step in and change what they want. All this was supposedly done to improve conditions for the students. They seem to be the last thing on everyone's mind."
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