There was a passing of the leadership baton at Gil Sanchez Elementary at the end of 2019, as Carla Martinez, left, stepped in as interim principal, when E. Renee Sanchez, right, left the school after five years. During her tenure, the school’s grade rose to an A and stayed there for two years and saw double-digit increases in proficiency scores.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

JARALES—Accolades on the national stage comes as bitter sweet for one local elementary school.

Gil Sanchez Elementary, in Jarales, has been chosen as one of the two schools to represent New Mexico this year as a National Title I Distinguished School.

GSE is one of 73 schools nationally recognized for academic achievement in 2019 with the National ESEA Distinguished Schools Award. The school was recognized under Category 1 — exceptional student performance and academic growth for two or more consecutive years.

Under the leadership of principal E. Renee Sanchez, GSE’s school grade improved from a C to an A for the 2016 school year, and it maintained that A for the 2017 school year.

But after five years with the rural elementary school, Sanchez tenured her resignation effective the end of December and has moved into a role she hopes will bring success to students across the state.

In her first year-and-a-half as principal, with goals and standards aligned, the school realized significant gains in PARCC scores. Math proficiency climbed from 16 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2016, and in reading, the rate rose from 37 percent to 41 percent.

“I said, ‘We’re just getting started,’” Sanchez recalled in a recent interview. “If we had 30-plus percent at proficiency, that meant almost 70 percent weren’t.

Interim principal for Gil Sanchez Elementary Carla Martinez, far left, along with other district and school employees, accepts the 2019 National ESEA Distinguished Schools Award on behalf of the school’s staff. Gil Sanchez Elementary was recognized for maintaining an A for two years in a row and rising test scores.
Submitted photo

“So we realigned the system, held teachers accountable. If you aren’t teaching to the standards, that’s a disservice to the students. We work under the premise that all children have the capacity to learn, for excellence.”

Those first 18 months were rough — there were a lot of storms to be weathered, including the turnover of 17 staff members, Sanchez said.

“But we knew we had to have the right people,” she said. “So we held jobs open for a year until we found the right one; we had permanent subs. We’d rather train up the people we have than hire the wrong people.”

When the second “A” was announced in 2018, that put Gil Sanchez Elementary in the top 25 schools in the state, and made it one of the few Title I schools in that group.

Those two As in a row were the results of a lot of hard conversations among the staff at the school, Sanchez said.

“If we want the children to succeed, we have to endure it,” she said. “Other principals have visited, they know our vision and see it can be done.

“I’ve been talking to Carla (Martinez) for a year now. She’s a leader. You can see that in her. Carla was leading before I left. It’s hard to come back. I love this place,” said the Belen native.

Last fall, Sanchez said she felt herself moving in a different direction in her professional life, felt the desire to take on more leadership responsibilities and reach out more.

So, she announced she would be leaving GSE to take a position with Grants/Cibola County Schools as it’s director of academic services.

Carla Martinez, a Belen Consolidated Schools teacher for more than 20 years, and a teacher at GSE the last two, has been named interim principal at the school.

“I’m following my purpose. Here, I could reach 20 teachers, but by doing this, I can reach hundreds, maybe thousands,” Sanchez said. “We’ve always said we’re going to do what it takes to help children. This shouldn’t be unique; it can be in every school. I know Carla is going to sustain what we’ve started here. Even if I had stayed, there were going to be bumps.”

In her new position, Sanchez wants to spread the culture that has become embedded at Gil Sanchez as far and wide as she can.

“One thing we focus on is the uniqueness of the child, to give every child hope, confidence and the desire to learn,” she said. “We expect excellence. It is data driven and now it’s a culture. We have to champion our successes, which is something we are uncomfortable with sometimes, but often, no one else does.”

Martinez said she will continue to grow and sustain that culture of expected excellence from not only students, but teachers, too.

“Everything we do, we do for our students. We constantly ask ourselves, ‘Is this right for the kids?’” Martinez said. “This can happen anywhere. ‘I can’t’ is not in our vocabulary. You might not know something today, but you may know more tomorrow or Wednesday or Thursday. We give them the belief that the sky’s the limit.”

Although she has moved on to another district, Martinez said Sanchez was an integral part of the school’s success, leaving those that come after with a solid foundation for success.

“She will continue to be a mentor to me,” she said.

The National Association of ESEA State Program Administrators — formerly the National Title I Association — has been selecting examples of superior, federally funded school programs for national recognition through the National ESEA Distinguished Schools program since 1996.

NAESPA implemented the National ESEA Distinguished Schools Program to highlight selected schools that have effectively used their ESEA federal funds to improve education outcomes for students.

The 2019 National ESEA Distinguished Schools were honored earlier this month at the 2020 National ESEA Conference in Atlanta.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.