Belen not settling for 'OK'

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School grades are out and although Belen Consolidated Schools fared OK when compared to schools across the state, Belen Superintendent Ron Marquez said they aren't settling for just "OK."

"We've got to do better," said Marquez.

Gov. Susana Martinez released the first official school grades utilizing New Mexico's A-F School Grading System Monday.

This grading system replaced the Adequate Yearly Progress federal rating system in January after the New Mexico Public Education Department submitted a waiver to the U.S. Department of Education.

At that time, the department was offering flexibility to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2011, which gave states an alternative assessment tool to grade their school's performance.

Almost 98 percent of schools throughout the state would not have made AYP this year, but with the new grading system, that number was reversed, according to an email from PED spokesperson Larry Behrens to superintendents and charter school directors.

"You are aware 98 percent of our schools are not failing (with the state grading system)," Behrens said.

School grades were based upon three years worth of data from academic growth, attendance, improvement of the highest and lowest performing students, standardized test scores, and college and career readiness.

Also calculated into the grades was up to 10 points for the Opportunity to Learn survey, where student's measure their classroom satisfaction, and five bonus points, which Marquez said PED is yet to release information on how schools can gain these points.

This state specific approach "provides better information" in regards to student progress and achievement, the governor's release states.

In comparing preliminary school grades released in January reflecting data from the 2010-11 school year, to grades released on Monday for the 2011-12 school year, five Belen schools dropped a letter grade with La Promesa Elementary School dropping two letter grades, two schools increasing a letter grade and four schools maintaining their grade.

"There's a lot of work to do and we have a lot of things we need to work on, but we're also going to celebrate some of the good things," Marquez said.

He applauded Belen Middle School's success for increasing their grade from a C to a B, and said the district needs to pick Belen Middle School Principal Sheila Armijo's brain to see what she did.

"She talked about her students being proficient versus giving them letter grades, and I think those are some of the things that she worked hard at by getting parents to understand that it doesn't matter if you get an A in a class if you don't understand the material," Marquez said.

He also pointed out a 10-point gain at Infinity High School, which brought their grade from an F to a D.

Principals throughout the district were unanimous on their next steps — take an in-depth view of the raw data used to calculate school grades, analyze where the dips occurred and create an action plan to improve next year's grades.

Dennis Chavez Elementary School Principal Rita Martinez said her school is planning on evaluating student programs, modifying instruction time and finding funding to hire a reading specialist, which the school doesn't currently have.

In Gil Sanchez Elementary School's grade, Principal John Caldarera noticed parent involvement needs to be increased and teachers need to find a way to aid students who scored on the lower end.

"I think when you see our scores next year, they'll be pretty good," Caldarera said.

At Rio Grande Elementary School students will be taught how to develop thinking skills to ask deeper questions and improve understanding within a subject, said Barbara Thoms, Rio Grande principal.

Although Buddy Dillow, principal at Infinity High School, said the school was pleased they improved their grade, they weren't content with where they stood.

Teachers plan on diverting their focus to proficiency in each subject and linking its importance to student success and graduation.

Beginning in August, if students don't pass Student Based Assessment by their senior year, they don't receive a diploma.

"We want all of our kids to not only graduate and get credits, but more importantly is that kids learn what they need to learn to be proficient and pass the SBA," Dillow said.

"It was disappointing to have dropped from a B to a C," said Henry T. Jaramillo Community School Principal Carla Martinez. But now the school has a more accurate picture of their strengths and weaknesses.

She said teachers will focus on the growth of highest and lowest performing students and how to meet student needs to help them improve academically.

On top of figuring out what each school needs to focus on, Isela Jaquez, La Merced Elementary School principal, said the state will be giving districts guidance on ways to improve.

"We've got a lot of work to do now and I think we're ready for it," Jaquez said.

Principals throughout the district will also gather to discover what strategies worked for them and which ones didn't.

However, administrators agree that switching to the Common Core Standards, aimed at teaching students the same curriculum and skills across the nation to better prepare them for college or the workforce, will aid in improving school grades.

The Common Core, implemented for those from kindergarten through third grade beginning in August, will aid in improving better instruction of a limited amount of material and student's success rate, since students will be taught a subject until they've mastered it, said Martinez.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.