The smallest traditional public school in Santa Fe is just around the corner from the Village Market. Sunlight reflects off Tesuque Elementary’s red metal frame structure onto the sunflowers planted outside the front entrance. A parent donated the colorful benches by the playground.

With a single bus route, the school on the northern edge of the district has about 100 students and a distinct, small-town feel.

Incoming Principal Cheryl Romero, who last year was at another elementary school in the district with nearly five times Tesuque’s enrollment, welcomes what makes the tiny school unique.

“Communication and relationship building is easier. You start to know the students and their families in a way that you would not otherwise,” Romero said. “And that’s not just some superficial statement, because there really is a chance to personalize student experience in a school our size.”

But exactly when does small become too small? The question could become a vexing one in the future for Santa Fe Public Schools, which is looking to find a balance between a neighborhood’s wishes and financial efficiency.

For now, while Tesuque is significantly smaller than other elementary schools in the 13,000-student district, the hidden gem, as Romero calls it, appears here to stay.

“Many districts, when a schools gets to a certain size, they close it. Whether you have a school with 75 kids or 2,000 kids, you still have to get buses and food and nurses and everything else, so the economies of scale really impact the per-pupil expenditure in smaller schools,” Superintendent Veronica García said. “The community sentiment seems to be that Santa Fe likes small neighborhood schools. That seems to be what our stakeholders and constituents want.”

As the opening of the 2019-20 school year nears, Romero said Tesuque will have six classroom teachers to serve prekindergarten through sixth grade. But since the school is so small, and enrollments in individual grade levels are not uniform: Kindergartners and first graders, second and third graders, fourth and fifth graders, and fifth and sixth graders will each share a teacher.

Romero last year was principal at K-6 Amy Biehl Community School with an enrollment of 470 students. She also has taught at Capital High and the former De Vargas Middle School, schools she once attended.

While Romero acknowledges the concept of one teacher for two grade levels — known in education as “combo classrooms” — might seem foreign at some schools, she said the setup will work in Tesuque.

“You have students who can role model, and kids learn from each other so much more, so the idea of joining grades together brings together the whole idea of this school being a family and a community even more,” Romero said. “Coming from another large school, you have the same situations. The whole undercurrent is to learn how to socialize, and combo classes are proven to develop social skills.”

For some parents though, a smaller school does not automatically equal better educational outcomes. Charlotte Romero said her son might return to Tesuque, which has had around 100 students since 2012-13, for a second year as an out-of-zone transfer. But she notes she also is exploring charter school options.

“The size of Tesuque was really attractive. I’m not a fan of big schools, but is [Tesuque] any better in terms of educating kids or teaching conflict resolution? No, it’s not better,” Romero said. “The issue is the quality of education. It could happen at a big school. It could happen at a large school, but it’s not happening. Wherever it is functioning, I would like to go there.”

In 2018-19, 15.2 percent of Tesuque’s students scored proficient for their grade level in reading, and 6.5 percent scored proficient in math. Both of those proficiency rates are less than half of the district averages of 31 percent in reading and 17.6 percent in math.

District officials are reluctant to discuss the possibility of closing Tesuque. In Santa Fe and most other cities, talk about consolidation can bring a firestorm of protest and controversy. And for now, at least, it seems unlikely that any move would be made, as school board elections are scheduled for November.

There are electoral consequences in such decisions. In 2010, the school board voted to consolidate Alvord, Kaune and Larragoite elementary schools into Aspen Community Magnet School. At the time, administrators told The New Mexican the move would save the district about $980,000 during a wave of budget cuts.

Mary Ellen Gonzales, who served on board from 2003-11, said she lost her bid for reelection after voting to close schools but still stands by her decision.

“The bottom line is, we cannot provide both small schools and small classes. It’s just too expensive,” Gonzales said. “People love their schools, and I’m glad they do, but I think we need to love our community. The way it’s set up is not fair to all of the students in Santa Fe.”

But as Tesuque prepares for the new school year, the enthusiastic Romero only thinks about the possibilities at Tesuque, and the opportunity to be a personal principal for her students.

“I am going to learn all of the students’ names,” Romero said. “But the true interaction is knowing who they are and who their families, siblings, friends, grandparents are. I’ll know who they are, not just their names.”

Tesuque Elementary at a glance

Enrollment, 2018-19: 104

Race/ethnicity breakdown

Native American: 10.6%

Black: 1.9%

Anglo: 12.5%

Hispanic: 75%

English-language learners: 20%

Special-education students: 16%

Low-income: 100%

School grades

2017-18: C

2016-17: D

2015-16: D

2014-15: C

2013-14: B

2012-13: C

Sources: Santa Fe Public Schools, New Mexico Public Education Department