‘This is our break­through year’

Su­per­in­ten­dent con­fi­dent in stu­dent im­prove­ment de­spite fail­ing schools, fal­ter­ing test scores

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Nott rnott@sfnewmex­i­can.com

Veronica Gar­cía said she’ll eat her hat if the school dis­trict doesn’t make great gains this school year.

“I am con­vinced that this is

our break­through year,” the Santa Fe Pub­lic Schools su­per­in­ten­dent said dur­ing an an­nual ad­dress at a lunchtime gather­ing Thurs­day that drew more than 200 peo­ple to the Santa Fe Com­mu­nity Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

Gar­cía then joked she might have to find some­one who can make her an edi­ble hat.

It was a telling and un­ex­pected vi­gnette in the mid­dle of the State of the Schools pre­sen­ta­tion, which can some­times be as no­table for the stu­dent-driven mu­sic and adult-fos­tered cheer­lead­ing as it is for any sin­gle point a su­per­in­ten­dent is try­ing to make.

But Gar­cía, com­ing off a rougher-thanusual sum­mer, seemed de­ter­mined to ex­hibit con­fi­dence, along with a slo­gan culled from the dis­trict’s strate­gic plan: Re­mark­able Hap­pens Ev­ery Day.

In Au­gust, the dis­trict learned 56 per­cent of its 30 schools re­ceived D’s or F’s in the state’s oft-ma­ligned A-F school grad­ing sys­tem, lead­ing Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary­des­ig­nate Christo­pher Ruszkowski to call Santa Fe a “dis­trict in cri­sis” and say that when a dis­trict is in such tur­moil, “You have to look at the su­per­in­ten­dent.”

Gar­cía, her­self a for­mer Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment sec­re­tary, fired back im­me­di­ately, call­ing his re­marks “ir­re­spon­si­ble” and

sug­gest­ing Ruszkowski was play­ing pol­i­tics.

Shortly af­ter that news, school board Pres­i­dent Steven Car­rillo and Gar­cía en­gaged in a testy pub­lic ex­change in Au­gust. He told her he’d like to see more pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity for the dis­trict dur­ing school board meet­ings, and she in turn sug­gested the school board not pull her into con­tro­ver­sial is­sues that take en­ergy away from the fo­cus on stu­dents.

They seemed am­i­ca­ble Thurs­day when Car­rillo in­tro­duced Gar­cía as “one of the best su­per­in­ten­dents in the West.”

Gar­cía out­lined the dis­trict’s strug­gles with proficiency and grad­u­a­tion rates but stead­fastly main­tained a pos­i­tive back­beat, which she de­liv­ered in a some­times hu­mor­ous and en­gag­ing tone with­out re­ly­ing on notes. Her bot­tom line: The dis­trict has been ini­ti­at­ing new pro­grams that should de­liver in­creased stu­dent proficiency rates by next sum­mer.

“What we’ve done in terms of im­ple­ment­ing stan­dard-based in­struc­tion, pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment for teach­ers and the pur­chase of new in­struc­tional ma­te­rial — all of that is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence and should pay off this year,” Gar­cía said in a fol­low-up in­ter­view.

She played up the school board’s ap­proval of an up­date to the dis­trict’s five-year strate­gic plan, which she said will fo­cus on im­prov­ing stu­dent achieve­ment and grad­u­a­tion rates, help keep schools safe, re­cruit and re­tain teach­ers and en­sure that the dis­trict’s tech­no­log­i­cal plan grows.

Dis­trict lead­ers, Gar­cía added, are com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that high school grad­u­ates leave not only with a diploma, but with strong crit­i­cal think­ing skills, a sense of civic

re­spon­si­bil­ity, a tal­ent for com­puter lit­er­acy and proof that they are aca­dem­i­cally pro­fi­cient.

Gar­cía drew ap­plause and cheers when she said the state should find a way to start pay­ing start­ing teach­ers at $45,000 a year rather than the start­ing pay of $34,000 they re­ceive. And she praised the 1,900-plus em­ploy­ees of the dis­trict for de­vot­ing their en­ergy and love to the stu­dents, a large ma­jor­ity of whom come from im­pov­er­ished fam­i­lies.

The school board hired Gar­cía in the sum­mer of 2016 as a tem­po­rary re­place­ment for for­mer Su­per­in­ten­dent Joel Boyd, who left the dis­trict af­ter four years. Though Gar­cía was ex­pected to serve for up to a year while the board con­ducted a search for a per­ma­nent leader, the board hired Gar­cía on a per­ma­nent ba­sis. Ear­lier this year, the board ex­tended that con­tract to June 2020 with a 2.5 per­cent salary in­crease to $184,500 a year from $180,000 a year.

For the most part, Gar­cía seems pop­u­lar with ed­u­ca­tors who have praised her tone, man­ner and sense of bal­ance.

GABRIELA CAM­POS/THE NEW MEX­I­CAN

Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Ramirez Thomas El­e­men­tary School per­form a song and dance Thurs­day to close the State of the Schools ad­dress at the Santa Fe Com­mu­nity Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

ABOVE: Se­nior Taj Savariau, right, plays a sax­o­phone with the Man­dela In­ter­na­tional Mag­net School world en­sem­ble to open the State of the Schools ad­dress Thurs­day at the Santa Fe Com­mu­nity Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

PHO­TOS BY GABRIELA CAM­POS/THE NEW MEX­I­CAN

LEFT: Pub­lic schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Veronica Gar­cía out­lined the dis­trict’s strug­gles with proficiency and grad­u­a­tion rates but stead­fastly main­tained a pos­i­tive out­look Thurs­day in her State of the Schools ad­dress. Gar­cía, com­ing off a rougher-than-usual sum­mer, seemed de­ter­mined to ex­hibit con­fi­dence, along with a slo­gan culled from the dis­trict’s strate­gic plan: Re­mark­able Hap­pens Ev­ery Day.

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