Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García said while the district is improving, challenges rooted outside the classroom continue to hinder some students’ ability to catch up.
“Our schools are doing what they’re designed to do, and that’s produce a year’s worth of academic growth in one year. Our problem is we have so many children who come in behind and grow at the same rate as everyone else but stay behind,” García said. “Many kids come to us homeless or under tremendous stress, and when kids are dealing with basic needs, it’s going to impact their ability to learn at a rate that is accelerated.”
García will address math and reading proficiency rates as well as her initial thoughts on reimagining the district in response to a recent school board push to close three elementary schools during her annual State of the Schools address Wednesday. In last year’s speech, García said she was convinced 2018-19 would be “our breakthrough year.” That statement followed a summer in which then-Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said Santa Fe was a “district in crisis” and “You have to look at the superintendent.”
García noted expectations for sharp growth are difficult to meet in district in which roughly three-quarters of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, a marker of poverty.
“I think it was a mixed bag this year,” García said. “Some of our schools saw tremendous growth. In other areas, we’re still working to break down socioeconomic barriers.”
Last school year, at least 8 percent of Santa Fe Public Schools students were homeless at some point, and García estimated the real percentage could be twice as large, given that many school-age children who are homeless are never reported to the district.
During García’s current tenure in Santa Fe (she also served as superintendent from 1999 to 2002) reading proficiency has increased from 28 percent during her first year in 2016-17, to 31 percent in 2018-19. Math proficiency is up by 1 percentage point in that same period, from 17 to 18 percent.
“I know some people want to see 5 or 10 percent growth,” García said. “We’re happy with our improvement, but it’s also clear we’re not where we want to be.”
New funding from the state signed into the education budget was meant to help New Mexico’s school districts extend the school year and provide additional programs for students who are English language learners, Native American, in special education or are low income. While Santa Fe Public Schools received an additional $7.1 million from the state for this school year, it says $6.7 million of that increase went to mandatory raises for employees. García said in a statement to the Legislative Education Study Committee earlier this year that the district needs to hire 23 more full-time nurses, 25 full-time social workers, 30 full-time, specially trained counselors and 25 full-time community school coordinators, but it doesn’t have enough funding.
This fall, García’s job status was a nonissue in the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education election, which can sometimes turn into referendums on the superintendent’s performance. Both board newcomers Sarah Boses, who defeated a challenger for the position vacated by Maureen Cashmon, and Carmen Gonzales, who defeated incumbent Steven Carrillo, said they had positive views of García’s tenure.
Both new board members also campaigned on their opposition to closing schools after Cashmon pushed a vote on closing Acequia Madre, Nava and E.J. Martinez elementary schools onto the school board agenda last month that was defeated 3-2. The board did vote to direct García to present a process by the end of February for how the district will examine aging facilities, per-student expenses, declining enrollment and other issues raised by Cashmon and board member Lorraine Price.
As García plans to reimagine the district, one parent said she understands the district’s challenges but wants to know its plan.
“My concerns aren’t even about academics. It’s all about the real life problems that kids are going through before they can even sit down and take any test,” said Annjenette Torres, Parent Teacher Organization president at Milagro Middle School. “I have so much sympathy for how much schools have to deal with, so I want to know if there’s any way we can do to address these pervasive issues that start outside school, and then we can think about enhancing our academic structures.”
If you go
What: Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García’s annual State of the Schools address
Where: Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W. Marcy St. A livestream will be available at www.sfps.info
When: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday