Question: The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way we educate children, especially with remote learning becoming a central component. In what ways do you envision education changing during your tenure?
Answer: It’s continuing the utilization of technology and what we have at our fingertips. We need to make sure that not only do we utilize it at home, but in the schools. This is something students are going to take with them in developing those 21st-century skills and bringing them into the workplace.
As far as remote learning, we are still gathering that information. It’s in the preliminary stages of exploring that [as a model for some students]. You look at Desert Sage Academy, which has a remote option for [grades] 6 through 12 and a modified hybrid model. We want to make sure we’re looking at all different options for educating our students.
Question: You said one of your top priorities is recruiting students and families who left the district. What is your pitch to them?
Answer: First and foremost, we care about the whole child. Our schools are safe, they’re open and they’re ready to receive all of our students back. One thing our schools do well are some very unique things that individualize why their sites are so special and unique. There is not one site that does things exactly like the neighboring sites. It is about promoting what we’re doing well at each school site and making sure that parents understand there are different options out there.
For example, we have three small high schools — ECO [Early College Opportunities], Mandela International Magnet and Desert Sage — but we also have two larger high schools [Santa Fe and Capital]. Just at the secondary level, we have different options, and each and every one of them offers different and unique pathways for students.
It’s like going to a grocery store. You don’t sell the same brand in every aisle. You have a choice.
Question: Superintendent [Veronica] García presented a preliminary outlook of next year’s budget Thursday, pointing out the district potentially faces a $7 million deficit. How do you work with her to help mitigate the impact that will have on students and teachers?
Answer: We are definitely trying to balance the budget in a sensible and logical way for future years so that we don’t have to hopefully make any cuts in the classrooms, to our schools, our departments or districtwide. Collaboratively, we are getting input from all different departments and leaders to make sure that everybody is on board and understands the direction of the district.
There [is] so much uncertainty right now, a year from now and two years from now. You don’t know what the [state equalization guarantee distribution that funds school districts] will look like or what the federal funding is going to look like. We are trying to make sure it’s a balanced budget that Dr. García is leaving our team that ensures we are doing what is in the best interest of the district and our students and staff.
Question: While the district has championed the 86.3 percent graduation rate for the 2019-20 school year, detractors will argue that figure was inflated because seniors were given more time to graduate or offered alternate paths to their diploma because of the pandemic. How do you try to maintain that rate, given the challenges districts faced this year with remote learning?
Answer: We always want to identify what each student needs to meet the graduation requirements and we’re always going to provide the options that are available. One thing a lot of school districts did last year was transition to a pass/fail grading system, while we stayed with a traditional grading system. Our students still had to earn a D or better to earn that credit for graduation.
We also want to provide that support to our staff and schools so they know what is needed for each individual student. They do a great job of making sure students are aware of what credits they might be lacking or that they might not have passed at the time but also providing them options so they can cross the finish line.
Question: Do you see yourself at Santa Fe Public Schools for a long time, or is this a position that is a steppingstone to another job?
Answer: I don’t see this as a steppingstone position. I want to stay at Santa Fe Public Schools for as long as they will have me. I am committed to our students and our staff.
When you find a home, you never want to leave. I left New Mexico and went halfway across the world when I was in Germany working for the Department of Defense Virtual High School. I missed New Mexico every single day. That really taught me that, when you find a home, stay there. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
That taught me a valuable life lesson, and it’s something I carry with me every single day.
James Barron, The New Mexican