Teacher, principal mentoring programs improve student instruction at Animas Elementary and Heights Middle schools.

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FARMINGTON – The work performed by staff members at two Farmington schools to improve student instruction could have an impact nationwide after the head of a national education organization toured the schools this week with state Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.

Animas Elementary and Heights Middle schools were visited by Skandera and Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, on Thursday and Friday.

The nonprofit organization is comprised of the country’s top education leaders from each state and territory, and works to discuss and address major education issues.

During an interview on Friday in the Farmington Municipal School District's central administrative office, Minnich said he had been looking to visit a New Mexico school district where leadership and teaching training programs have had an impact on student achievement.

With the impact of mentoring programs like Principals Pursuing Excellence and Teachers Pursuing Excellence at Animas and Heights becoming apparent, Skandera said Farmington would be a great district to visit.

“Being in those classrooms (Thursday) and (Friday), you see something different going on, in a good way,” Minnich said. “Teachers are taking ownership over their own instruction in a way that is not happening in many places in the country.”

Principals and teachers from the lowest-performing schools in the state are assigned mentors as part of the program. The teachers and principals then participate in specialized training to improve a teacher’s NMTEACH teacher evaluation score and a school’s grade from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

The Farmington district saw 14 of its 17 schools improve their grade for the 2014-2015 school year and increased the number of schools with an A grade from one to 11.

Animas saw the most improvement in its school grade, going from a D for the 2013-2014 school year to an A for the 2014-2015 school year.

Heights’ school grade increased from a D in the 2013-2014 school year to a C for the 2014-2015 school year.

“What we see in Farmington is a community, a school board, a superintendent, school leaders and teachers all committed to a culture that embraces excellence and celebrates it,” Skandera said.

The group visited Heights on Thursday and spent time Friday morning at Animas. Skandera and Minnich toured classrooms at each school and held a reception Thursday afternoon in the Heights library to meet teachers and staff from both schools.

“It was an incredible honor to have them visit Animas,” Principal Emily Foose said. “It was an opportunity to celebrate and recognize the hard work our teachers do.”

By participating in the programs, Animas was able focus on using student data from interim assessments to help develop instruction that targets every student in the school, Foose said.

Educators from both schools participated in extra training, with two sessions completed in October and January that started after school ended on a Friday and lasted all day Saturday. Foose said the sessions focused on developing a stronger culture for students and teachers, along with developing more meaningful lessons for the classroom.

Heights Principal Nate Pierantoni said he was also happy and humbled to see Skandera recognize the middle school.

“We know that every student at our school deserves an opportunity to be successful academically,” Pierantoni said. “We are working to ensure every kid can achieve at high levels.”

Minnich plans to take what he learned from visiting Animas and Heights, and share his insight with state education secretaries and superintendents from across the country.

“To see principals standing up in this way, having conversations in a different way, getting feedback to teachers — those are the type of things we saw here that is great,” Minnich said.

Skandera said she hopes to expand the programs to more schools in the future, a move that could help improve New Mexico’s ranking as one of the worst-performing states in education nationwide. The state was ranked 49th in the nation, according to a Quality Counts 2016 report issued by the Education Week Research Center in January.

“It’s clear this state needs some of the things happening (in Farmington) to happen statewide,” Minnich said. “If you are focused on how kids are doing, New Mexico is going to need to do better.”

Skandera said the demand from school districts to participate in the programs is really high.

“I think people are seeing the results and saying, ‘I want some of that,’” Skandera said.

But a lack of funding could be an issue if the state education department wants to expand the program, Skandera said. Teachers Pursuing Excellence is a $2.5 million program that will run for two years at Animas and Heights, along with two schools each in the Alamogordo, Belen and Peñasco districts. About 170 teachers from the four districts are involved, Skandera said.

The state education department also saw its budget cut for the upcoming fiscal year, according to Skandera.

“We are thinking very creatively right now about how we do more with less,” Skandera said. “We’re going to find a way because it’s that important."

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.

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