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Farmington schools continue to fare well in state grading system
Seven of district's 19 schools earn A grade for 2017
FARMINGTON — There was an abundance of good news that officials and supporters of the Farmington Municipal School District could take from the annual school grades that were handed out Tuesday by the New Mexico Public Education Department.
But Superintendent Eugene Schmidt zeroed in on one fact above all others — eight of the district's 19 schools have averaged an A grade over the last three years.
"It wasn't always that good a story," he said on Friday after having had a few days to digest the PED's assessments of the schools he oversees. "It's a lot of really nice work."
Farmington's climb to the top of the academic heap of the largest districts in the state has taken place over the last six years, Schmidt said, and it's a journey that began well before he came to Farmington in 2015. He credited deputy superintendent Phil Valdez and many others who have been around over those six years with having done much of the heavy lifting that now is paying dividends.
"We are, as a school faculty and community, very proud of the work the kids are doing in the classroom," Schmidt said.
Of the 19 schools in the district, seven earned an A grade — Piedra Vista High School, County Club Elementary, Mesa Verde Elementary, Ladera del Norte Elementary, Northeast Elementary, Animas Elementary and San Juan College High School.
A total of eight others received a B grade — Farmington High School, Tibbetts Middle School, McKinley Elementary, Heights Middle School, McCormick Elementary, Bluffview Elementary, Esperanza Elementary and Mesa View Middle School.
Another three drew a C grade — Apache Elementary, Hermosa Middle School and Rocinante High School — while the New Mexico Virtual Academy was assessed a D grade.
Schmidt noted that the district's showing this year was buoyed by the performance of Animas, Apache, Bluff View and Ladera del Norte. Each of those schools improved its rating by a full letter grade over 2016, he said.
"It's always good to see schools growing to an even higher level of success," he said.
New Mexico Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski described Farmington schools as a beacon for the rest of the state. He noted that when the grading system was initiated in 2012, the district didn't have a single school that qualified for an A grade, and only 12 percent of its schools earned a B grade. This year, he said, 37 percent of Farmington schools earned an A, and 79 percent of its schools were awarded an A or a B.
"That is nothing short of remarkable," Ruszkowski said.
There are many reasons for that turnaround, he said.
"Farmington's doing just about everything right," Ruszkowski said, explaining that the school board has developed a clear academic vision for the district and given Schmidt the support he needs as superintendent to be effective. He also pointed to the leadership that principals are supplying at each school, as well as the teachers who are following through on the district's plans at the classroom level.
Ruszkowski and Schmidt both said the district's embrace of the PED's Principals Pursuing Excellence program has had a positive effect on Farmington's efforts to raise its performance. Ruskowski went so far as to say Farmington has done a better job of implementing the program than any district in the state.
Schmidt said Principals Pursuing Excellence has allowed the district to go "further, faster" than it has before and that it envelops a strong and structured belief system.
"It's really focused on, what are the characteristics of good teaching?" he said. "As we walk through schools, what should principals be looking for? How engaging is the learning environment? … As we do our classroom observations, these are the things that good teachers look like."
The news wasn't all good for Farmington, as four of the district's schools were assessed a grade of C or lower. The district already is formulating plans to bring the performance of those schools in line with the others, Valdez said, explaining that school officials will be working closely with teachers to identify high-leverage improvement opportunities that will result in quick wins.
"One of our focuses will be on planning, and what does that look like?" he said. "It's not just lesson plans, but an approach that is data driven."
Officials are planning to increase their frequency of gauging student progress in math across the district by planning weekly quizzes, and a program battling truancy is about to be implemented, as well.
Schmidt said there's no question that lower-performing schools can turn things around, pointing to the success of Mesa View Middle School. The school received an F grade in 2014 and a D grade in 2015, but has rebounded to earn a B each of the last two years.
He said there already are signs of improvement at Rocinante High School, where the graduation rate improved from 44 percent in 2016 to 55 percent this year.
"That's 25 percent improvement. That's pretty rare across the state," Schimdt said. "We think we're on a path, a trajectory, that we think is fine, and we'll continue to build on that momentum."
Ruszkowski said Farmington will face a different set of challenges in the future, now that it is running neck and neck with Rio Rancho for the honor of being the top-performing large district in New Mexico.
"The challenge for Farmington in the years ahead to try and keep raising the bar and never being satisfied until every child is reading and doing math at their grade level," he said, noting that the district has every right to take a moment to celebrate its scores but that it quickly should pivot toward taking things to the next level.
Schmidt said he and Valdez are encouraging the staff to celebrate the district's grades for about two weeks before it will be time to move past that and refocus.
"I don't see complacency as a problem," he said.
Valdez said he rejects the idea that the district simply needs to maintain its current status.
"We need to get away from sustainability because, depending on where you are in terms of progress, the word sustainability can be a flat line," he said. "The (phrase) I would use is, we're on an improvement trajectory. We want to see continued improvement."
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.