Santa Fe New Mexican

Where even the principal knows your name

Tesuque Elementary School has about 100 students: But how small is too small?

- By Dillon Mullan dmullan@sfnewmexic­

The smallest traditiona­l public school in Santa Fe is just around the corner from the Village Market. Sunlight reflects off Tesuque Elementary’s red metal frame structure onto the sunflowers planted outside the front entrance. A parent donated the colorful benches by the playground.

With a single bus route, the school on the northern edge of the district has about 100 students and a distinct, small-town feel.

Incoming Principal Cheryl Romero, who last year was at another elementary school in the district with nearly five times Tesuque’s enrollment, welcomes what makes the tiny school unique.

“Communicat­ion and relationsh­ip building is easier. You start to know the students and their families in a way that you would not otherwise,” Romero said. “And that’s not just some superficia­l statement, because there really is a chance to personaliz­e student experience in a school our size.”

But exactly when does small become too small? The question could become a vexing one in the future for Santa Fe Public Schools, which is looking to find a balance between a neighborho­od’s wishes and financial efficiency.

For now, while Tesuque is significan­tly smaller than other elementary schools in the 13,000-student district, the hidden gem, as Romero calls it, appears here to stay.

“Many districts, when a schools gets to a certain size, they close it. Whether you have

a school with 75 kids or 2,000 kids, you still have to get buses and food and nurses and everything else, so the economies of scale really impact the per-pupil expenditur­e in smaller schools,” Superinten­dent Veronica García said. “The community sentiment seems to be that Santa Fe likes small neighborho­od schools. That seems to be what our stakeholde­rs and constituen­ts want.”

As the opening of the 2019-20 school year nears, Romero said Tesuque will have six classroom teachers to serve prekinderg­arten through sixth grade. But since the school is so small, and enrollment­s in individual grade levels are not uniform: Kindergart­ners and first graders, second and third graders, fourth and fifth graders, and fifth and sixth graders will each share a teacher.

Romero last year was principal at K-6 Amy Biehl Community School with an enrollment of 470 students. She also has taught at Capital High and the former De Vargas Middle School, schools she once attended.

While Romero acknowledg­es the concept of one teacher for two grade levels — known in education as “combo classrooms” — might seem foreign at some schools, she said the setup will work in Tesuque.

“You have students who can role model, and kids learn from each other so much more, so the idea of joining grades together brings together the whole idea of this school being a family and a community even more,” Romero said. “Coming from another large school, you have the same situations. The whole undercurre­nt is to learn how to socialize, and combo classes are proven to develop social skills.”

For some parents though, a smaller school does not automatica­lly equal better educationa­l outcomes. Charlotte Romero said her son might return to Tesuque, which has had around 100 students since 2012-13, for a second year as an out-of-zone transfer. But she notes she also is exploring charter school options.

“The size of Tesuque was really attractive. I’m not a fan of big schools, but is [Tesuque] any better in terms of educating kids or teaching conflict resolution? No, it’s not better,” Romero said. “The issue is the quality of education. It could happen at a big school. It could happen at a large school, but it’s not happening. Wherever it is functionin­g, I would like to go there.”

In 2018-19, 15.2 percent of

Tesuque’s students scored proficient for their grade level in reading, and 6.5 percent scored proficient in math. Both of those proficienc­y rates are less than half of the district averages of 31 percent in reading and

17.6 percent in math.

District officials are reluctant to discuss the possibilit­y of closing Tesuque. In Santa Fe and most other cities, talk about consolidat­ion can bring a firestorm of protest and controvers­y. And for now, at least, it seems unlikely that any move would be made, as school board elections are scheduled for November.

There are electoral consequenc­es in such decisions. In 2010, the school board voted to consolidat­e Alvord, Kaune and Larragoite elementary schools into Aspen Community Magnet School. At the time, administra­tors told The New Mexican the move would save the district about $980,000 during a wave of budget cuts.

Mary Ellen Gonzales, who served on board from 200311, said she lost her bid for reelection after voting to close schools but still stands by her decision.

“The bottom line is, we cannot provide both small schools and small classes. It’s just too expensive,” Gonzales said. “People love their schools, and I’m glad they do, but I think we need to love our community. The way it’s set up is not fair to all of the students in Santa Fe.”

But as Tesuque prepares for the new school year, the enthusiast­ic Romero only thinks about the possibilit­ies at Tesuque, and the opportunit­y to be a personal principal for her students.

“I am going to learn all of the students’ names,” Romero said. “But the true interactio­n is knowing who they are and who their families, siblings, friends, grandparen­ts are. I’ll know who they are, not just their names.”

 ?? GABRIELA CAMPOS/THE NEW MEXICAN ?? Cheryl Romero is the first-year principal at Tesuque Elementary.
GABRIELA CAMPOS/THE NEW MEXICAN Cheryl Romero is the first-year principal at Tesuque Elementary.

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