East Mountain High School, a six-year-old public charter school located in Sandia Park, east of Albuquerque, is a model for small-school success. Most of the 330 students meet federal benchmarks for academic achievement; the school has a 96.2 percent graduation rate; and nearly all of its graduates go on to higher education.
“Every year we have a waiting list out there,” state Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, said. “And a higher and higher percentage of low-income and special education students are getting into this school.”
Its performance is one of the reasons Beffort is co-sponsoring a bill introduced earlier this week that limits the size of schools eligible for state school construction dollars.
“I have seen the absolute black-and-white proof that these kinds of smaller schools are good for more of our low-income areas,” Beffort said.
Last October the nonpartisan think tank Think New Mexico released a report with recent research supporting the idea that smaller schools can help lower the dropout rate and raise academic achievement.
According to data cited in the report, New Mexico’s graduation rate — 54.1 percent — was second from the bottom.
The bill introduced Monday by Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, provides procedures for the consolidation of schools, limits the number of students per grade in new construction projects and certain renovations, and establishes priorities for renovation projects that will result in smaller schools and for utilizing community facilities.
Think New Mexico has assembled a coalition of reform groups, education experts and civic organizations in support of Senate Bill 255. In addition to Nava, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and Gadsden Independent School district Superintendent, and Wilson, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, the list includes two national education reform organizations (The Coalition of Essential Schools and the Rural School and Community Trust), the New Mexico Coalition of Charter Schools, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others.
Vi Florez, former dean of education at The University of New Mexico, said she supports the legislation because “students who go to smaller schools get more of the academic caring they need to succeed. I have seen that.”
Florez said that supporters are asking legislators to consider the idea instead of continuing to fund large schools. “Students are getting lost within the system. Instead of another huge high school on the West Side (of Albuquerque), let’s think seriously about this idea,” she said. “Our students are just not doing well.”
The Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent, on the other hand, believes smaller schools would hurt the football and ROTC programs in the city’s biggest schools.
Under SB 255 an application for a new school would not be eligible for grant assistance from the Public School Capital Outlay Fund unless it is designed to accommodate no more than 60 students per grade in Pre-K and kindergarten; no more than 66 students per grade in grades 1-3; no more than 72 students per grade in grades 4-6; no more than 120 students in grades 7 and 8; and no more than 225 students per grade in grades 9-12.
An application to enlarge the capacity of an existing school would not be eligible for assistance from the fund if the enrollment capacity exceeds these size limits.
Schools that make use of community resources would get priority in funding. Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe, for example, uses the Genoveva Chavez recreation center and the community college library rather than building its own facilities.
The bill also establishes detailed procedures that districts must follow when they attempt to consolidate existing small schools.
Beffort, a co-sponsor of the bill to fund full day kindergarten, another brainchild of Think New Mexico, said she thinks the chief beneficiaries of the new bill will be high-risk children from low-income families who “might need more time in a structured environment.”
While Beffort is optimistic about the bill’s chances, she said, “Sometimes you have to start putting things out there. Maybe it will take a couple of years.”