Taos County schools review state grades

Taos Academy earns fifth consecutive A rating, TISA jumps to B

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Recently released New Mexico Public Education Department report card grades have several Taos County teachers and administrators scratching their heads as they focus on improvement for the new school year.

Several schools in and around Taos improved their grades from previous years. Meanwhile, six schools in the area fell from their 2016 grades. In total, there were three A grades in the area and four F grades, indicating some schools are looking to seriously improve for the 2018 year.

Each year, the state PED issues report cards grading individual schools on the previous academic year based on several different criteria. School grades are reviewed by parents, school officials and others to determine how a school is performing in comparison to state averages and others in a given district.

"The bulk of the school grade is based on academic growth. Are you growing all kids, no matter what level they come in?" said New Mexico Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowski.

According to Ruszkowski, a majority of schools across the state witnessed increases in the college and career readiness portion of these grades, but many districts, including Taos, Questa and Peñasco schools, still have work to do.

Though no Taos Municipal Schools institutions received an F for the 2017 grades, five D grades were seen in the district report card for 2017 and two schools dropped from C's to D's. While the district works to elevate those grades for the next year, teachers in the district have been focusing on their math instruction, as well as other factors to ensure their students perform well on the state's Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers standardized tests, which are included on the overall school report card grades from the state. Math is an area where the district's students have struggled.

"As a district, I think we are moving forward and we're still in transformation," said Taos Municipal Schools Superintendent Lillian Torrez. "No matter how many budget cuts or whatever, we're going to push forward."

The PED school grades are determined by eight different categories and have been calculated relatively the same way for the past six years. College and career readiness, graduation rates, opportunity to learn, improvement of lower- and higher-performing students, as well as school improvement are all factors or points that go into determining the final grade.

Within some of these scores are numbers, such as school attendance rates, ACT and SAT participation rates and bonus points, which schools can earn from improving in other areas. The grades also indicate whether or not a school is progressing or increasing some of its positive scores through the school improvement and student growth categories. In addition, these scores are focused on reading and math proficiency of students based on PARCC scores.

Despite the challenges these grades pose to schools, some in the area have managed to gather their talents and pick their grades up from previous years.

"It's been difficult," said Taos Integrated School of the Arts Director Rich Greywolf. "We had close to 30 new students, so it was very challenging to make those changes and hopefully the things we're doing now will continue to make us better."

TISA brought its 2016 D grade to a B for 2017, which is a considerable jump in the state's grading system. According to Greywolf, programs such as after-school tutoring, reading and writing programs, clubs and free day care have all contributed to improving the charter school's grade from the state. The school has 165 students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade.

Another charter school in the Taos area celebrating its grade this year is Taos Academy, which earned an A grade from the state for the fifth consecutive year. The fifth- through 12th-grade school focuses on giving students individual attention and providing students with the extra time they need to learn subjects at their own pace. While Traci Filiss, Taos Academy co-founder and director, admits her school size of 220 students makes it more simple to provide individual student attention, she also said that larger public schools in the area would have to rethink their curriculum if they want to model the A school.

"It's very reassuring to know that something innovative in education is actually succeeding," Filiss said about her school's grade. "Do we have room to grow? Absolutely. However, what we are offering here is something students and families need and we are showing success."

Outside of the charter schools, public schools in the area have also seen some success in their school grades. Seven area schools have raised their school grades in 2017, including Questa High School, which now sits at a B. Peñasco Elementary and Enos Garcia Elementary both raised their letters from F grades to D's.

Area schools are looking at the entire report card to gain some extra points and have noted that some of its schools are on the verge of a higher grade and could possibly make appeals to the state on some schools. Schools have a 30-day window in which they can appeal their grade if they do not agree with the final result and see if anything can be done to raise the current grade. As Ruszkowski said, the state usually gets a handful of appeals per year; few of them end up changing more than a few percentage points.

Schools that continually receive low grades do qualify for some assistance in helping their students and teachers. State-developed programs, such as Principals Pursuing Excellence, are available for struggling schools or districts seeking to elevate their progress and performance. PPE is a two-year program focused on building leadership from the top - at the principal level - and moving it down to the teachers and having the results ultimately affect teaching, efficiency and student learning altogether.

Ultimately, Ruszkowski is encouraging struggling schools and districts to simply ask for the help they may need.

"If you're a school that is struggling, call your fellow principals, call your fellow schools and see what they are doing," said Ruszkowski. "There are so many schools that are beacons of success in this state, and we no longer have to look beyond our borders."

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