Rate soars for 2018 in Farmington Municipal School District

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FARMINGTON — Spring break week in the Farmington Municipal School District was not a joyous time last year, at least among district administrators, teachers and staff members. Figures released by the New Mexico Public Education Department showed the four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2017 at Farmington's high schools had plummeted, dropping nearly 5 points from the year before — by far the largest decrease in at least seven years.

That news hit hard, Farmington High School Principal Tim Kienitz said. He recalled the glum atmosphere among educators at the school and throughout the district as the gravity of those figures became apparent. The district had gone from a 2016 rate of 71 percent to 66.2 percent, and Kienitz's school had fallen from 72 percent to 67.89 percent.

"We didn't know if that was an anomaly, but it was a wake-up call for us," Kienitz said. "We don't want to see a third of our students not being successful."

That sour mood lingered, but by the time the school year ended, he said, the feeling had begun to lighten. Administrators noticed that the graduating classes at the district's high schools were larger than normal, and that gave them hope that the Class of 2017 figures would prove to be the exception rather than the rule.

When educators welcomed back students in August, Kienitz said, the atmosphere was completely different. Despair had been replaced by determination.

"We rolled up our sleeves and said, 'We need to do some things to address this,'" he said.

A renewed sense of commitment across the district apparently paid dividends, as figures released last week by the state education department showed Farmington schools posting a strong graduation rate recovery. The district's overall rate for the Class of 2018 was 74.7 percent, a jump of 8.5 points from the year before. The news was even better at FHS, which boasted the highest graduation rate in the district at 83.6 percent — an increase of 15.71 points.

Kienitz welcomed those numbers and said they caught him a little by surprise, especially the ones at his school.

"We knew (the graduation rate) was going to be higher, but we didn't know how high," he said, explaining that he was guessing the FHS rate would be in the high 70s. "It was certainly higher than we thought."

A one-year increase of that size is unprecedented at the school in his experience, he said.

"This is my seventh year here, and this is the biggest increase I've seen in my time here," he said.

More: Grant provides for redesigned curriculum at Farmington school

District Superintendent Eugene Schmidt lauded the increases across the district as Piedra Vista High School increased its rate from 75.05 to 79.8, while Rocinante High School went from 38.54 to 48.1. District officials also were pleased by the significant increase for students in the students with disabilities category, where the graduation rate skyrocketed from 32.9 percent to 60.8.

The only district high school that showed a decrease was the New Mexico Virtual Academy, where the graduation rate dipped from 39.64 to 38.9. Overall, the graduation rate for Farmington schools now exceeds the state average of 73.9 percent.

"We hope all of these are viewed as a breakout performance," Schmidt said.

He described the mood across district facilities last week as celebratory, and he said those positive figures are a combination of hard work by educators and students, as well as a commitment to local schools by members of the community.

"It comes down to the grit of these kids," he said on Thursday in his office at district headquarters. "This is a compliment to every kid who goes to school for their sticktoitiveness and commitment to seeing it through to the close."

Schmidt and deputy superintendent Phil Valdez return often to the phrase "intentionality" to describe the district's efforts to improve the district's graduation rate and the performance of its students on standardized tests. They have implemented a variety of programs designed to address specific challenges facing students in the district, and Schmidt acknowledged Thursday that there is no simple, one-size-fits-all approach to producing better outcomes. Some of those ideas have been borrowed and adapted from other districts.

"I don't think there is a silver bullet," he said, emphasizing his belief that the construction of personal relationships between students, and educators and mentors is an enormously important factor.

Coordination of all those efforts is integral to their success, Valdez said.

"Our focus has been shifted to a systems approach," he said, explaining that the district's various departments and schools no longer work in an isolated fashion. Every program the district implements is part of a highly structured, 90-day plan between administrators and educators at each school, he said, with district officials conducting monthly checks at each school to make sure the program is on track and to provide individualized support at all those locations.

"That complements the work they do through the 90-day planning process," he said.

The district has deployed several individual strategies. For example, it has launched a program called Project Search for exceptional needs students that places them in a real-word work situation with the city of Farmington and partners them with an adult who comes to play a significant role in their life.

Christa Kulidge, the district's director of exceptional programs, is a big believer in the program's effectiveness, explaining that it greatly enhances the employability of students once they graduate, thus giving them good motivation to stay in school. She also pointed to newly implemented routine systems checks that led to a decrease of 3 percentage points in the truancy rate among exceptional needs students during the first semester and a 2-point increase in average daily attendance.

Kulidge said she was frustrated that a good reason for the district's poor 2017 showing in its graduation rate was never identified, but she was very pleasantly surprised by this year's numbers and expects that trend to continue.

"I'm really excited by this data, and I look forward to seeing another strong growth next year," she said.

The district also has partnered with San Juan United Way to establish mentoring programs for students. In the graduation coaches program, adult volunteers are partnered with at-risk seniors, and that coach monitors the student's grades and attendance, and tries to provide the student with the support she or he needs to finish school.

Kienitz said a similar program has been implemented that provides mentors for incoming freshmen, giving them the kind of support that district officials hope will help them avoid academic struggles in the first place.

More: Student mobility affected 2017 graduation rates, school admins say

Valdez said the district also has strengthened its credit-recovery program. Students who have fallen behind in earning enough credits to graduate now have more options for catching up.

"We operate that program not just through Rocinante anymore, but through our comprehensive high schools as well — FHS and PV," he said. "We're not waiting for kids to fail. We're using intervention first so they don't fail."

While he was reveling in the good news last week, Schmidt said he hadn't forgotten the fact that the district still has a lot of students who aren't graduating on time. In an ideal world, he said, Farmington schools would see 100 percent of its students earn a diploma, and he said the most important thing is for students to graduate no matter how long it takes.

"Sometimes, it's a not a four-year race to graduation," he said. "Sometimes it's a five- or six-year race."

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

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