‘The right way’

Tiny el­e­men­tary school raises its grade from C to A


JARALES — Gil Sanchez El­e­men­tary, a tidy school just off High­way 109 south of Be­len, is a friendly, unas­sum­ing suc­cess story.

Dur­ing the past year, the school boosted its grade from a C to an A thanks to data-driven in­struc­tion, clear goals and lots of hard work.

It is now among the high­est per­form­ers in the state.

Across New Mex­ico, only 14 per­cent of schools re­ceived an A grade, ac­cord­ing to 2017 re­sults re­leased by the Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment last week.

Gil Sanchez El­e­men­tary is par­tic­u­larly no­table be­cause it is part of the fed­eral Ti­tle I anti-poverty pro­gram, and al­most 80 per­cent of the 292 stu­dents are mem­bers of mi­nor­ity groups.

New Mex­ico Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion-des­ig­nate Christo­pher Ruszkowski vis­ited the school ear­lier this month and said it is an in­spi­ra­tion.

“It’s awe­some what they’re do­ing,” he said. “I’m gush­ing. … I was blown away. The things they were say­ing are so ex­actly what one would hope for.”

Prin­ci­pal E. Re­nee Sanchez said it’s grat­i­fy­ing to see her staff’s work trans­late into strong re­sults.

“We had tal­ent here, but now we are all go­ing the same di­rec­tion,” said Sanchez, a Be­len-area na­tive who be­came prin­ci­pal in Jan­uary 2015 after 15 years in the class­room.

Her of­fice is ground zero for the trans­for­ma­tion.

From Mon­day to Thurs­day, teach­ers gather around the con­fer­ence ta­ble to re­view the

state’s Com­mon Core stan­dards and com­pare them with stu­dents’ per­for­mance.

The group writes out de­tailed de­scrip­tions of the stan­dards on large pieces of white butcher pa­per and hangs them on the wall to un­der­stand the progress chil­dren are ex­pected to show at each grade level.

For in­stance, sec­ond-graders are asked to “de­scribe the over­all struc­ture of a story, in­clud­ing de­scrib­ing how the be­gin­ning in­tro­duces the story and the end­ing con­cludes the ac­tion.”

By sixth grade, they should be able to “ex­plain how an au­thor de­vel­ops the point of view of the nar­ra­tor or speaker in a text.”

Fifth-grade teacher Re­becca Lewis said the weekly meet­ings have been help­ful.

“Ev­ery grade builds if they have a good foun­da­tion,” she said.

Lewis and the other teach­ers dis­cuss the stan­dards with their stu­dents and give reg­u­lar ex­ams to as­sess their progress.

The ap­proach is show­ing re­sults.

Gil Sanchez stu­dents’ scores on the PARCC — New Mex­ico’s main stan­dard­ized test — have grown steadily over the last two years.

Math pro­fi­ciency climbed from 16 per­cent in 2015 to 32 per­cent this year. In read­ing, the rate rose from 37 per­cent to 41 per­cent.

Lewis — a 10-year vet­eran of the school — said the new datadriven ap­proach is “a lot more guided and clear” than be­fore.

“I love read­ing and I thought I was a good read­ing teacher, but I would get my scores back and they wouldn’t re­flect what I thought we had done all year,” she said. “This, I think, matches the PARCC and what they need.”

While Gil Sanchez El­e­men­tary is tak­ing a close look at data, it doesn’t ne­glect the hu­man side of teach­ing.

Staff strive to cre­ate a pos­i­tive, re­spect­ful cul­ture for stu­dents, Sanchez said.

The Jour­nal vis­ited sev­eral class­rooms and saw stu­dents learn­ing about cells, plants and let­ters. Sanchez said the chil­dren are gen­er­ally en­gaged and well-be­haved.

“We try to guide them through mod­el­ing,” she said. “We are try­ing to be in­ten­tional with how stu­dents talk to stu­dents and stu­dents talk to teach­ers.”

At the same time, Sanchez said she be­lieves all chil­dren should be held to high ex­pec­ta­tions.

“It’s our job to cre­ate a safe place and ed­u­cate them,” she said. “If we’re not, we’re do­ing a dis­ser­vice to the child. These par­ents trust us with their kids.”

Gil Sanchez El­e­men­tary is en­ter­ing its third year of in­ten­sive, stan­dards-fo­cused teacher groups, and Lewis said she can’t wait to see what they are able to ac­com­plish next.

New Mex­ico’s school grades are largely based on stan­dard­ized test re­sults, par­tic­u­larly the im­prove­ment stu­dents show from year to year. For el­e­men­tary schools, test score growth makes up 65 per­cent of the to­tal grade.

The Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment is start­ing to weigh over­all pro­fi­ciency more heav­ily, bump­ing it up from 15 per­cent in 2015 to 25 per­cent to­day. In 2019, pro­fi­ciency will make up 33 per­cent of an el­e­men­tary school’s grade.

Sanchez said her school is set­ting am­bi­tious goals and dig­ging deeper into the data.

She ac­knowl­edged that the process has been ex­haust­ing at times, and the teach­ers can dis­agree dur­ing the weekly meet­ings, but stu­dent learn­ing is al­ways the pri­or­ity.

Be­len Con­sol­i­dated Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Max Perez em­pha­sized that there are “no magic in­gre­di­ents, just hard work.”

Gil Sanchez El­e­men­tary’s suc­cess is “en­er­giz­ing and ex­cit­ing to the rest of us and the rest of the schools,” Perez said.

“We have this con­fir­ma­tion that we are do­ing things the right way,” he added.

Sanchez said Perez has sup­ported her ef­forts and ad­vo­cated for more data-driven in­struc­tion across the district.

A few years ago, he asked all schools to start cre­at­ing 90-day plans and year-end goals to stay on track — a process PED in­sti­tuted through the Prin­ci­pals Purs­ing Ex­cel­lence men­tor­ship pro­gram.

The community is also on board, Sanchez said.

“Par­ents are talk­ing about stan­dards now,” she said.


Be­fore hand­ing out a math test, Gil Sanchez El­e­men­tary fifth-grade teacher Re­becca Lewis talks with stu­dents about key words to look for when they read the test ques­tions.

The key words stu­dents cir­cled on the test ques­tions help them bet­ter un­der­stand the re­sult be­ing sought.


E. Re­nee Sanchez, Gil Sanchez El­e­men­tary School prin­ci­pal, ex­plains the ef­fort be­hind the school’s im­prove­ment from a C grade in 2016 to an A grade in 2017.

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