Athletic Director/Dean of Students Jeanie Mataalii and Koogler Middle School Principal Rick Espinoza hold the banner for Koogler Middle School being a
Athletic Director/Dean of Students Jeanie Mataalii and Koogler Middle School Principal Rick Espinoza hold the banner for Koogler Middle School being a national runner-up in the National Association of Middle School Principals and Mutual of Omaha Safe Schools award. They were presented the banner during a NAMSP conference on June 24 in Atlantic City, N.J. (Courtesy of Rick Espinoza)

AZTEC — The school safety culture the staff at Koogler Middle School have cultivated resulted in the school and administration being honored for their efforts.

On June 24, the National Association of Middle School Principals presented three awards to the middle school, its principal Rick Espinoza and Dean of Students/Athletic Director Jeanie Mataalii.

Koogler was a national runner-up for the Safe Schools award and Espinoza was the second runner-up for middle school principal of the year. Mataalii was named both athletic director and dean of students of the year.

"All of our teachers work together to make it a safe school," Mataalii said. "All the teachers are very supportive of what is going on. We couldn't be a safe school without everybody being a part of it."

The school submitted data on its discipline referrals, how the school handles discipline and the kinds of incidents that happen on campus, as well as the campus layout, safety procedures and safe school plan.

Espinoza said a tiebreaker was needed after a number of schools tied for first place. The tiebreaker relied on the schools' statewide grading systems.

"The team that beat us in the safe school (awards) had a better academic reporting," Espinoza said. "When you look at our scores versus the middle school that beat us scores, what they consider a low score is much lower than what we consider a low score."

The national safe schools winner was Pioneer Trail Middle School in Olathe, Kan. Espinoza said Koogler was judged using the C grade it received from the 2012 state's A-to-F school grading system.

This year's results of the grading system were announced earlier this month. Critics of the system have said that the grading formula depends too much on standardized tests and may not paint a complete picture of a school's performance.

Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter said it's nice to be recognized for school safety in a positive light, especially because most school safety news tends to be negative or reported only after bad things happen.

"Learning is our business but you are not going to have a good place for learning if it's not a safe place," Carpenter said. "It makes you feel like you are doing the right thing."

For the upcoming school year, Mataalii and Espinoza are focusing on reducing bullying.

"We've got the fighting, the drugs, the alcohol -- we got those processes, but the bullying problem is a little harder because bullying can happen in some sneaky ways," Espinoza said.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or jkellogg@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @jkelloggdt.