This is the first in a set of stories exploring the difference among Taos County schools the state Department of Education grades as A or F. What do those grades mean?
Two students sit in classrooms in Taos learning the New Mexico core standards, one at a charter school and one in a traditional public school. The differences in the classrooms are so subtle only a state-issued grade can tell them apart.
The teachers are trained. They plan engaging lessons and strive to keep students interested. Their walls are colorful, and they look for ways to make learning fun.
But some of the schools are failing and some are succeeding, according to their recent report cards from the state.
Charter schools in Taos are among those that improved the most and retained the highest grades. These schools have specific rules, or charters, that allow them to operate. They must abide by their charter, meaning those schools must limit the number of students they accept based on the charter.
Traditional public schools also have to adhere to the rules set by the state, but they also have to accommodate any student who lives within the district's boundaries. According to Taos Municipal Schools Superintendent Lillian Torrez, this is one of the factors that sets apart charters from other public schools.
"We take any student, no matter what their disabilities or their traumas," said Torrez. "We have so many students with needs in our schools. So many of them need health care, vision care, need someone to read at night with them."
According to Torrez, Taos Municipal Schools take on a larger student base than the area charter schools and with that comes the difficulty of teaching a large variety of students who have different needs, even if the number of students per teacher is similar between the schools.
Leaders of charter schools disagree with her assessment. They say they also have high populations of students from low-income families and special education students.
A wide variety of other factors affect students and school performance: parental involvement, parents in jail, single-parent homes, English Language learners and a range of learning disabilities. Some of those aren't measured on a state report card, but teachers know them by heart.
Enos and Ranchos struggle to improve
Two schools in the Taos district, Ranchos Elementary and Enos Garcia Elementary, received F grades from the New Mexico Public Education Department, or PED, this year.
Both schools dropped to the bottom after getting a D grade last year. While the schools improved their proficiency scores from the once-controversial standardized PARCC test over past years, they still earned an F grade from the PED.
According to the superintendent, both Ranchos and Enos Garcia are making small improvements but not enough to change their letter grade. Enos Garcia made drastic improvements in math scores from 2017. And both schools were less than one point away from the D grade this year, but they still face hurdles to get there.
The poverty levels in Taos affect the students and by extension also affect the school grades, according to Torrez. Over 20 percent of people in Taos County live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.
"Poverty levels align with school grades," Torrez said. "We have so many students that come and enroll, and every time there is a charter opening, somebody is waiting to take the spot, and it's not the child in poverty."
Students who receive free or reduced lunch are considered lower income and, according to Torrez, some students primarily get their meals from the district. Both Enos Garcia and Ranchos provide free or reduced-cost lunch for all of their students.
She doesn't think the problem lies with the training or quality of teachers. All 26 teachers at Ranchos Elementary School have a bachelor's degree, and half have a master's degree. Two of the teachers are National Board Certified.
Enos Garcia principal Gladys Hererra Gurule said she was devastated when she learned of her school's F grade. "I couldn't believe we are an F school," she said, adding the school is taking steps to improve the grade for next year.
TISA and Taos Charter, making A's
Despite the district's claim that poverty is a major factor in their state report card, charters also have high levels of students receiving free and reduced lunch. The leaders of those schools attribute much of their success to attention to individuals and teacher autonomy.
Taos Integrated School of the Arts faces similar challenges, such as students with special needs or from poor homes, but chooses to focus on the positive, says director Rich Greywolf.
Approximately 65 percent of TISA students are on free or reduced lunch and 40 students, or 22 percent of the TISA enrollment, require special education (not including gifted students). Furthermore, the school has moved its campus several times over the past three years. Still, the school brought its PED grade from a D in 2016 up to an A this year.
"I'm not saying there's not kids who are lower performing here. We just work with them," Greywolf said.
TISA has eight aides in the classrooms, four of whom work individually with a student who has unique needs.
Greywolf said while charter schools have fewer students, based on the limits imposed by their charter, when an excellent group of students graduates from TISA, they take their scores with them. Not every group will perform the same. According to Greywolf, the charter for TISA states the school can have no more than 180 students and cannot exceed 20 students per class.
Taos Charter School also received an A grade from the PED.
"(The grade) is one helpful indicator," said Taos Charter Director Jeremy Jones. "It's a piece of information and it's a good summary, but you really have to dig down into the details to get the true meaning of it."
Jones and his school have earned A grades from the PED the past four years, and 34 of their 213 students are in special education.
What's the difference?
Among the schools profiled in this story, class sizes, poverty levels and number of special education students are about equal, with TISA holding the highest percentage of students in special education based on school population.
Charter schools don't get to cherry-pick the kids to make up its student population. Returning students are given the top priority, and open slots then go to siblings of the already enrolled students. Charters put their remaining spots into a random lottery. People fill out applications, and the annual lottery determines which students will get in.
Revenue is another place to look when analyzing the differences. Schools in New Mexico are funded through various funds, grants and bonds. State equalization guarantee money, or SEG, is the schools' biggest pool of funds. It is largely based on student population and types of students within the school.
Torrez said the large number of charter schools in the area is slowly hemorrhaging students from the school district. When the students leave, so does the money.
While charters are also funded through the same SEG monies, smaller schools in New Mexico have the opportunity of qualifying for additional funding through the small-size adjustment. TISA and Taos Municipal Schools get around the same amount of money per student: about $7,000.
Torrez has been looking to other schools to see what it takes to earn an A from the PED. Torrez said she hopes to get to the bottom of understanding the school grades, which use standards that changed from year to year.
"We have to do a lot of small-group instruction, and we're going to have to be more innovative on how we deliver the curriculum," Torrez said. "We're doing all the right things, but we're not growing fast enough."
While charters have to teach the core subjects determined by the state, they do so in more nontraditional ways to engage students in learning. TISA is heavily geared toward the arts.
For example, "The big part, for us, is that education should be fun," Greywolf said.
PED Secretary Chris Ruszkowski expressed hope for Taos Municipal Schools but said some work has to be done.
"I'd like to see the Taos school district look around the state, look to partner with charter schools and continue to be more innovative and data driven," he said. "I think there's a lot of work ahead for the Taos school district."