Curtis Clough expects the next five to 10 years will be a transformative period for education, not just in New Mexico but in the entire country.
An associate superintendent at Silver Consolidated Schools in southwestern New Mexico, Clough said the coronavirus pandemic will change how communities teach and support the current generation of children and their families. He touted his experience as a teacher, coach, principal and administrator, as well as his familiarity with online education at public schools and colleges, as strengths that would make him a valuable asset as superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools.
“This is going to be a three-, five-, maybe even a 10-year struggle to look at how we get our kids to be successful and how we support our families,” Clough said.
Amid the uncertainty left by the pandemic and the vacuum created by the impending departure of Superintendent Veronica García, the Santa Fe Board of Education will interview six finalists for the top position in the school district on Saturday, highlighting a search that likely will have huge repercussions for years to come.
Board members initially committed to conducting in-person interviews, but board President Kate Noble said Thursday they will interview finalists in executive session online, starting at 9 a.m. She cited safety and health concerns expressed by district staff for the format change, and board members will not meet at the central office for interviews either.
The finalists include four senior administrators who work for the district, plus Clough and Gabriella Blakey, the chief operations officer at Albuquerque Public Schools and an administrator in Santa Fe from 2014-15.
The other candidates agreed with Clough’s assessment about education and said the next administration will contend with other issues, including balancing in-person and remote learning, recapturing lost learning time and trying to stem the tide of shrinking enrollment that eventually will affect the district’s budget.
Blakey said the pandemic also has provided an opportunity for innovation that might not have happened without it. She pointed to the third round of federal stimulus money, which provided the state $979 million to distribute to school districts, as an important cog in how districts will address challenges.
“We’re in a situation where we’re unsure what education looks like and what societal changes will occur,” Blakey said. “With the federal money coming in, how can we use that to enhance the strategic plan that already is in place and move some of those things forward?”
Noble said the requirements put in place for applicants brought plenty of quality candidates.
The district sought applicants with at least a master’s degree in educational administration or educational leadership; five years of teaching experience at a public school; and a minimum of 10 years of administrative experience at a public school, which includes being a principal or a district administrator.
Now, Noble said, it’s a matter of finding the right fit.
“As one person said, ‘You’re pretty specific in what you wanted in a candidate,’ ” Noble said. “What the board is looking for is a love match — someone who feels really good with us and vice versa. And we’re prepared to pivot if need be.”
The next superintendent will head a district that has experienced some recent success. Santa Fe Public Schools’ graduation rate was 86.3 percent for the 2019-20 school year. However, the district also is facing a troubling enrollment decline, with a drop of nearly 1,400 students since the 2018-19 school year.
García championed the district’s response to the pandemic, quickly moving schools into remote learning and providing laptops for all of its students. She also said the professional development training teachers underwent to start the school year helped the transition into their online curriculum.
“If you go to any school board meeting, we are getting awards, whether it is nationally, internationally or through the state,” García said. “We have created a culture of excellence, but it’s also one of caring, to go with a can-do attitude.”
One of Garcia’s lieutenants, Kristy Janda Wagner, the deputy superintendent of operations and school support, said she is confident the current administrative team under García can continue on the path she set through the pandemic.
“We really are a team and we work well together and hold each other up,” said Janda Wagner, who has been with the district for 23 years. “We believe deeply in the work that is happening in the schools and in the success of the students.”
Another administrator in the finalist pool, Julie Lucero, said the district also must deal with increasing demands to help students and their families with wraparound services such as health care, clothing, food aid and social workers. The school board has affirmed its commitment to the community schools concept, which uses schools as a hub for those services. Lucero, director of the district’s Exceptional Student Services department, said those types of offerings will become more essential in a post-pandemic era.
“We need to provide for the needs of those students before we can even tackle academics,” she said. “If someone is coming to school and they are hungry or haven’t slept well or there are other things happening at home, they’re not going to learn.”
Clough said a leader who can collaborate with businesses and community organizations to assist the district will be essential in maintaining the momentum García helped build. He added the pandemic has demonstrated how vital schools and school districts are to the communities they serve.
“The one thing COVID has proven is that schools are resilient and are able to adapt in many different ways to a community’s needs,” he said. “The collaborations that have come out of this has changed the way we thought about how we service kids and families in difficult times.”