LAS CRUCES—When the U.S. Department of Education implemented the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace No Child Left Behind, there were changes made to the labels that are given to schools across the country based on academic performance.  But, the labels don’t give a complete picture of how schools are making progress, said Dr. Greg Ewing, superintendent of the Las Cruces Public Schools.

All states must comply with the new federal law with a state plan.  Recently, the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) released information on those labels, identifying three different categories of schools:  Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI), Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI), and chronically failing schools that have been identified for what is termed “More Rigorous Interventions” (MRI). There are different requirements depending on the label, district officials said.

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RGPI Principal Kathie Davis and Superintendent Dr. Greg Ewing at the school’s graduation ceremony.

In the Las Cruces Public Schools (LCPS), one high school — Rio Grande Preparatory Institute, one of the district’s alternative high school — has been placed in the CSI category. This label, according to ESSA, is a school that has a four-year graduation rate that is less than 67 percent for two of the past three years.

There are four local schools that were given the TSI ranking: Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy, an alternative middle school, and MacArthur, Sunrise and Valley View elementary schools.  This group has been identified as having at least one low-performing subgroup of students, with the subgroup scoring low over a 3-year-average.

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Rio Grande Prep had its largest graduation in the school’s history in May 2017. The event is now held in the Pan Am Center to accommodate the large crowd.

“These labels are not showing the whole picture of the how well students are doing overall,” said Superintendent Greg Ewing.  “The New Mexico Public Education Department distributes the ranking, and is then quoted as saying the ‘kids should not be trapped in failing schools.’  Our kids aren’t trapped, they are supported and nurtured by exceptional teachers and are continuing to make progress, day-in and day-out.”

At Rio Grande Preparatory Institute (RGPI) the graduation rate used to hover around 22-to-24 percent in 2011-2013. After a school restructuring, that number jumped to a 59 percent graduation rate in 2016, said Dr. Wendi Miller-Tomlinson, LCPS Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning.

“The number of students we see cross the stage at graduation has increased dramatically,” said Miller-Tomlinson.  “Without RGPI, many of those students would have never completed high school.  That is what we call success.”

Miller-Tomlinson said RGPI’s label doesn’t fully account for academic improvements.  She explained that when a student attends a different high school over the course of four-to-five years, each school gets a partial credit from the state for the graduation rate.  So, if a student at RGPI also attended another local high school, which many of them do before transferring to-or-from RGPI, the other school is partially credited by PED with a percentage of the graduation rate, she said.

“Because of the current system, alternative schools simply don’t get full credit for how well they are doing and what the graduation rate truly represents,” Miller-Tomlinson said.

According to Principal Kathie Davis, in 2013, RGPI had 33 graduates.  Those numbers grew over the next several years: 66 in 2014; 121 in 2015; 162 in 2016; and 176 in 2017.  She anticipates the number of graduates next May to be 200.

“Graduation rates are calculated on a four-year plan — not everyone’s life fits into this neat life-plan,” Davis said. “We are hoping that the state will eventually recognize the contributions we make to the diverse community members we serve.  We believe a high school diploma opens many doors that not only benefit our students but our community as a whole.”

She said that the school motto of “School to Work and Beyond,” exemplifies how “RGPI allows students to support their families and gain valuable work experience as they move their lives forward.”

“We look beyond the traditional standardized testing and work with the state’s New Workforce Solutions Department to implement and evaluate how well our students are doing in real-world skills.” Davis added.

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MVLA, located in Mesilla Park, has 100 middle school students.

Test scores from the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessment at Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy (MVLA), the district’s only alternative middle school, is the basis for low-performing label of TSI, officials said.

“It’s ironic that schools receive a hurtful label of ‘Targeted Support and Improvement’ which is exactly what the students receive every day, all day,” said Superintendent Ewing. “In the case of MVLA, after restructuring two years ago, there’s been positive changes and increases in math and English Language Arts.  MVLA is another success story of how teaching and learning is designed to meet the specific needs of students who have chosen to be in an alternative learning setting.”

Miller-Tomlinson explained that MVLA language arts scores improved in 2016/17 compared to the previous two school years.  The latest PARCC outcomes show an increase of 5.4 percent for sixth-grade, 2.3 percent for seventh, and 2.6 percent for eighth grade.  Improvements have also been made in mathematics with an increase of 1.6 percent for sixth-grade, and nearly one percent each for both seventh-and-eighth grades.

Dr. Toni Hull, MLVA’s principal, said the non-traditional school focuses on project-based learning and leadership skills.  Hull said they teach skills in a holistic manner in classes with mixed grade levels, followed by performance assessments.

“This manner of teaching and learning through experiences is not a linear progression which is what the standardized assessments measure,” Hull said. “We’ve seen our students grow academically, and in their leadership skills, and most importantly, students are excited to attend school. It’s all about cultivating kids’ desire to learn and showing them that they can achieve any goals they set for themselves.”

Ewing said the three elementary schools that received the TSI label have multiple interventions to assist with students’ performance.  Title I federal funding is utilized by each of the schools to support math and language instruction, plus additional funding and programs are available to assist students whose primary language is not English.  Professional development for teachers continues throughout the school year and most importantly, teachers and support staff continuously review students’ strengths and weaknesses, he said.

—For more information, contact Chief Communications Officer Jo Galvan, jgalvan@lcps.net, 575.527.5811