by T. S. Last, Journal North
July 15, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. — It will be “stay the course” for Santa Fe Public Schools – at least until the school district finds a permanent replacement for Superintendent Joel Boyd, who resigned last week to take a job in the private sector.

“School is starting, resources have been allocated. It would be very disruptive at this time to try to bring in more initiatives,” said Veronica García, who the Santa Fe school board hired as interim superintendent during a special meeting that began last Friday and ended Saturday.

“The board made it very clear that they want to finish what they started with the (five-year) strategic plan, and to ensure that there’s fidelity to the goals and the objectives in that fifth year. The board is not looking for a change agent, they are not looking for someone at this point as an interim to be implementing new directives, new initiatives, but rather to stay the course on the strategic plan and to ensure that our new principals are supported so that they can be successful when schools open.”

School board president Susan Duncan said essentially the same thing when asked this week about the search for a permanent replacement. She said there is no set timetable for finding a replacement and noted that García’s contract gives the school district an option to terminate it as soon Feb. 15 if someone is hired by then, or anytime before June 30 when the contract is set to expire.

“The first thing we need to do is open the schools,” Duncan said. “We’ll be working on a plan next month and probably by September we can start thinking about a permanent replacement.”

García, 65, who lives in Albuquerque and soon will be stepping down as executive director of the nonprofit group Voices for Children, said it’s too early to say for sure but she may be interested in keeping the job.

Two other members of Boyd’s cabinet – Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Almi Abeyta and Assistant Superintendent for Equity and Instruction James Luján – have already indicated they are interested.

Making magic happen?

One of the reasons García was an appealing choice to serve as interim superintendent was her experience and familiarity with the school district, Duncan said. García served as SFPS superintendent from 1999 to 2002 before she was tapped by then-Gov. Bill Richardson to serve as the state’s first secretary of education, a position she held until 2010.

Back at SFPS headquarters on Alta Vista in a temporary office being set up for her on Tuesday, García was asked how the district changed since she left SFPS.

“Schools are more secure,” she said. “There’s a lot more technology, and a stronger focus on student achievement and outcomes, and that’s being tracked in a very good way.”

Asked if she was “data driven,” she said, “Of course we have to use data and have to make data-driven decisions. But I think I’m eclectic and have a good balance in my approach as an educator.”

She’s a big believer in early childhood education, noting her role as executive director of a children’s advocacy group and that, as cabinet secretary, she helped craft the state’s Pre-Kindergarten Act of 2005. Administered by the Public Education Department and the Children, Youth, and Families Department, it provides that children who have reached their fourth birthday by Sept. 1 are eligible to attend a Pre-K program.

“There are no silver bullets, but is it one of the high-leverage strategies that we can engage in to improve outcomes for children? Absolutely. And the earlier the better,” she said, adding that studies show that, in the long run, children who participated in early childhood programs are less likely to require remediation, become incarcerated or abuse drugs later in life. “Whether it’s quality home visitation, quality childcare, education, pre-K programs, they’re important.”

She went on to talk about children growing up in poverty – 73 percent of Santa Fe schools’ 13,000 students are classified as economically disadvantaged – and her own experience as a child growing up in Albuquerque, raised by her aunt in a home with tile laid over a dirt floor, the only running water in the kitchen and two outhouse out back. She’d work odd jobs to help put food on the table.

But she got a good education, she says. She went to grade school with “country club kids” and she did well in an environment with high expectations. Those expectations lessened when she went to a junior high made up mostly of minority students, she said, but were raised again when she reached Albuquerque High.

“So I saw first-hand the bigotry of low expectations that people talk about,” she said. “That’s why I’ve always been so passionate that we have high expectations, but that we also support kids. We have to hold ourselves accountable because we want to have access to high-quality education to break the cycle of poverty.”

The first in her family to graduate high school, she says she was the one who broke the cycle of poverty in her family.

Living in poverty doesn’t mean children can’t learn, she said, “but it also means that we need to look at how we mitigate those impacts of poverty and how we can provide for our children in a holistic way, particularly those children that aren’t being successful.”

García said there’s nothing like the relationship between a child and mentor.

For her, it was a speech coach who motivated her to stay in school and work hard to excel. “For someone else, it might be a baseball coach, or a math teacher. But it’s that relationship where an adult believes in you, sets high expectations for you, that helped you believe in yourself, that made you want to be successful, persevere and hang in there,” she said. “We don’t want to lose that magic – that relational dynamic that happens with teachers and kids – that magic moment where they click and great learning happens.”

Testing issues

Many educators in Santa Fe and elsewhere have complained that the holistic approach to education has been lost with so much emphasis now being placed on student test scores. García agrees that it has to some degree become “counterproductive.” But she also believes standardized testing serves a purpose.

Again, she said she wants a balance.

“Those tests were designed to look at how well a curriculum is being delivered. Over time, these tests have evolved to look at accountability measures and our children progressing at various rates,” she said, adding that she believes in using multiple measures. “I think standardized testing is important, but there needs to be a proper balance.”

As far as using student test scores as an increment to evaluate the performance of teachers, “I think that should be part of it, but not the only factor. There are many factors that are important in teaching and learning, and there has to be a balance.”

Asked how much weight student test scores should have on a teacher’s evaluation, Garcia couldn’t say definitively. “It should be something that’s agreed upon collaboratively to come up with a framework everyone thinks is fair and makes sense in the current environment,” she said.

Prior to sitting down with a reporter on Tuesday, García met with Grace Mayer, president of NEA-Santa Fe, who recently blasted Boyd and said teacher morale was “at an all-time low.” It was one of many meetings García had this week with school officials and stakeholders.

Though she had only been on the job for a day and a half, she seemed to have a handle on much of what was going on within the school district and what the school board expected of her. Among her directives are to usher the district through the final year of the strategic plan, assure the merging of Capshaw and DeVargas middle schools goes smoothly, assist in deciding what to include in the next school bond election, establish (or re-establish) relationships with nonprofit groups and other stakeholders in the public and private sectors that work to support the schools, and provide support to principals and teachers in the classroom.

“That’s where the action is,” she said of the work done at the schools.

García said student achievement measures at SFPS are tracking in the right direction. The graduation rate has improved by 5 percentage points, up to 66.8 percent, during Boyd’s four years. While still 1.8 points below the state average, the gap is the narrowest it has been in at least seven years. Reading and math proficiency rates have also gone up.

“We’re getting good gains,” she said.

As for the future – what lies beyond the five-year strategic plan – García said that’s up to the school board to decide.

“Do you continue on with the current strategic plan and have it evolve, stay the course with it and maybe set new targets? Or perhaps you change some of the tactics to meet these goals and objectives,” she said. “It could be that we may want to change course in some areas; it depends. I think it will depend on the input they receive and then I would imagine that, if you have a true, high-quality strategic plan, then that would chart the course for any kind of initiative or program.”

That doesn’t mean she’ll stand idle if there’s something she feels needs to be addressed. “Just because I’m interim doesn’t mean my hands are tied,” she said.

García says she has an open door policy, and that she wants to hear from teachers, staff members, parents and students. She used to hold “cracker barrel” sessions where she’d announce she’d be at a school for two hours or so and invite anyone who wanted to come and speak with her informally when she was superintendent here, and she plans to do that again.

“I want to make sure there is unstructured time for people to come in and chat. I want people to be able to feel that they are heard. That’s important,” she said.

While she enjoyed her work with Voices for Children, Garcia says she missed working in education.

“I hope that I can, in this interim role, be a good observer, a good listener, to use my background, experience and skill set, and my knowledge of the best research and best practices to get the best outcomes,” she said, later adding, “I have one more opportunity, probably, to bring my skill set and my passion to work I care deeply about. And if I’m only here a brief period of time and can make a difference, that would be really rewarding.”

Copyright 2016, Albuquerque Journal