I’ve been actively involved in education for over 15 years, both as a teacher for at-risk teens and publisher of a national parent newsletter. I’m also a former board president of the Village Day School in Peralta and a father of two children currently enrolled in the Los Lunas Schools.
That said, I was extremely disappointed to read that the Los Lunas School Board had decided to prematurely extend the contracts for Danny Burnett and his entire cabinet. Simply because dissent is squashed and ignored within the district doesn’t mean that everyone is happy or that all policies are sound. Under the current leadership, the district has trampled academic freedoms, insisted upon narrow instructional methodologies and completely turned away from its past support of site-based decision making.
My recent experiences as a teacher at Century High School serve as a perfect example of this alarming trend. Over the past five months, the school has undergone significant program changes — without public input or notice and without the consent or involvement of students, parents, veteran staff members or community leaders. The alternative school — relaunched seven years ago as the result of a walkout from Los Lunas High School — was supposed to be serving those students whose needs were not being met by traditional instructional methods. Instead, it has become just another high school: overstuffing its classes, suspending students who dissent and punishing teachers who refuse to follow its new and ill-considered directives.
Where it once offered project-based, interdisciplinary learning, it now offers a curriculum in a box. Where it once offered students with problems a full hearing with all staff members present to discuss solutions, it now … (is) willing to suspend or expel students who do not instantly conform. …
The school’s original spirit, attitude and purpose have all been summarily replaced with a new program model — contrary to the published student handbook for CHS and well-established practices and polices — by people who’ve never spent an hour in one of its classrooms or listened to even a single student’s life story. They are more concerned with meaningless pedagogy (relying on simplistic test grades and worksheets) than measuring actual growth and changes in attitude (as demonstrated in authentic portfolio assessment).
This was not always the case. Students came to CHS as a last hope before dropping out, and we did our best to re-engage them in their education and their futures. Our mission was to help students grow in their personal lives, increase their academic abilities, coach them at work and develop their sense of community through projects (such as the hike and bike trail created through the bosque by my students two years ago).
By all standards of measure, we ran a successful school. We maintained high graduation rates, with all competencies passed –helping move the district’s dropout rate to an all time low –and had zero reports of violence in the past school year. (Not a single fight. Not a single incident to report.) A visit early in this school year — before the abrupt program changes — by the New Mexico State Depart-ment of Education confirmed that CHS was a place where students loved to be and where they found caring adults who helped them develop their full potential. Our students said they learned more in six weeks at CHS than in two years at the high school.
With the staff’s guidance and understanding, students who were once potential dropouts discovered that they, too, had what it took to succeed. Most not only graduated, but developed the confidence and courage necessary to continue their education.
That’s why the changes implemented three months into the school year came as such a surprise. The district took a successful school and turned it into a place with low morale and even lower expectations. This kind of meddling should not be met with applause, and it certainly doesn’t merit contract extensions.
The members of the school board should find the courage to question the methods of those they employ. Their blind faith in the district’s leaders has caused them to sacrifice the futures of our valley’s most at-risk youth for the sake of appearances. In their eagerness to put on a good public face, close ranks and pat each other on the backs, they’ve callously ignored the views of students, staff and parents. Our only recourse is to make our voices heard within the community so that we can no longer be excluded from the table.
If the old Century High meant something to you — or if you also have concerns to share from other programs — please make sure your voice is heard. Write your school board member, the administration and this paper. The debate over the direction of our schools should always be public — not made behind closed doors or on special administrative retreats.
(Editor’s note: Roger Reese of Peralta spent the last four years as an instructor at Century High School. He is currently employed by the Albuquerque Public Schools as a teacher in that district’s alternative high school program, School on Wheels, and is in charge of its Westgate Community Center campus. )