Rocinante High School 1 of 3 in state to draw funding

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FARMINGTON — A federal grant will supply Farmington's Rocinante High School with between $500,000 and $600,000 to develop and implement a redesigned curriculum over the next four years.

The school was one of three in the state to receive initial funding as part of the High School Redesign Network, a collaborative initiative that aims to promote increased graduation rates from New Mexico high schools. Approximately 60 schools across the state submitted proposals to take part in the initiative, and nine were selected to join the network. The New Mexico Public Education Department has earmarked $4 million in federal funding for the group through 2021, and Rocinante's grant is part of that total.

Rocinante was joined by Health Leadership High School in Albuquerque and Miyamura High School in Gallup in receiving the first round of funding. Founded in the late 1970s by the Farmington Municipal School District as an "alternative" high school for students with various personal issues, Rocinante has evolved into a place of learning that offers students a less-traditional approach to education, complete with flexible scheduling, smaller class sizes and a credit-recovery program.

Principal Peter Deswood describes the redesign plan as one that puts the needs of students first, regardless of whether those needs are academic, emotional or mental. He emphasized that the team the school put together to develop its redesign plan did not operate in a top-down fashion, in which the district or the school administration dictated to team members what the plan should include.

"This was an example of employee engagement," he said.

The school's redesign team consists of Deswood; assistant principal Jay Gardenhire; teachers LeeAnn Jones, Liz Hoza, Jen Dowdy and Nate Thompson, and guidance counselor Julie Christensen. The group held its first meeting a year ago, and over the next several months, it would compile a detailed plan for largely reinventing the school's approach to education that would reach 50-some pages.

Team members submitted the plan to the education department and its partner in the initiative, a team from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, for review. Rocinante had its plan approved, becoming one of the first three schools in the state to move on to receive funding and begin implementation of a plan.

Jones, who has been a teacher for 24 years, didn't hesitate to respond when she was asked why she thought the Rocinante plan resonated with the project's leadership.

"Because we're bold," she said.

What does that look like in practical terms? In many ways, Rocinante will be moving the goalposts. Hoza said the school is changing its focus from simply helping as many students as possible graduate to ensuring they're equipped to become a success after they graduate.

Members of the redesign team realized that lofty aim was going to force them to break the mold under which the school has operated.

"We made it very evident to the Department of Education we want to make some revolutionary changes," Jones said. "We want to go in a new and improved direction where kids become the focal point, the center of our decision making, and this grant provides that. It gives us a system, a process, support, a backbone, a foundation."

The first component of the plan will be the assignment of students to advisory groups based on their career inclinations. Their interests will be identified, and students will be connected to classes and programs that support those interests. Jones believes that students who enter Rocinante as freshmen will especially benefit from the advisory groups.

"It will serve as an intermediary between middle school and finding them some direction on their way to growing up," she said.

Through partnerships with local businesses, students will be encouraged to sample real-world work situations in an attempt to find a good match for their skills and interests. Deswood said the grant includes money for paid internships for students.

"As they begin exploring these things, they might start getting an idea of, 'This is me or not me,'" Hoza said.

Deswood said the goal is to have Rocinante graduates leave the school not only with skills directly related to their chosen career, but with the confidence and ability to collaborate with others.

"We want to be able to give them those problem-solving skills," he said. "That way, they'll have a foot up when they're compared to (students from) other schools."

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Hoza compared the new approach to developing an individualized education plan for all students, something that currently is required only for students who receive special education services.

"It considers all those things — strengths, weaknesses and what's in place to help students overcome weaknesses," she said.

Team members used student input to help develop the plan. Deswood said 10 Rocinante freshmen and 10 sophomores were interviewed as part of the process, with most questions centering on improving student engagement.

"We asked them, 'What do you want? What works for you and what would help you be more successful?'" he said.

Hoza said the small student body at Rocinante — enrollment averages 200 students a year — allows teachers and administrators to get to know students well, as well as giving them time to do other things besides focus on classroom instruction. That won't change under the new approach.

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"We focus on the social and emotional growth of students," she said. "That's the biggest reason Rocinante has been successful in the past. We refer to that as part of our culture. … We know we can use the (advisory groups) to accomplish a lot of that underlying direction we want to go in."

Hoza said if the new approach is to be successful, it will require flexibility and buy-in not just from Rocinante students, teachers and administrators, but from district and community members, as well. She singled out district administrators Nate Pierantoni and Korth Ellsworth for their contributions to the effort.

"You can't make these kinds of big changes without that support," she said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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