This story was originally published in the Rio Grande SUN on Jan. 4, 2018.
Dulce School District’s top administrator believes high turnover rates in a couple of key positions is driving the poor letter grades that could lead to the elementary school’s closure.
Since the 2012-13 School Year, the Dulce Elementary School has earned a string of failing grades on the annual report cards the state’s Public Education Department officials compile.
The elementary school’s repeated poor performance caught the attention of state regulators who designated it as one of the state’s More Rigorous Intervention schools in its Dec. 5 Struggling Schools Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) report.
The Act replaced No Child Left Behind, the law that has guided the nation’s public education since its implementation in 2002.
Dulce Superintendent Dennis Bissmeyer said the elementary school’s designation shouldn’t have caught anyone off guard, considering the District’s lack of stability in recent years.
The elementary school has had five principals and the District has had six superintendents in the last six years.
Bissmeyer refused to answer specific questions about issues at the elementary school that may have facilitated the school’s five-year period of poor performance.
This is his first full year as superintendent. The District hired him in April, to replace Manuel Valdez, who served as the District superintendent for the 2015-16 School Year and part of the 2016-17 School Year.
Department personnel gave the District and the other three impacted school systems a Jan. 9 deadline to address the failing schools.
School leaders, in accordance with the state’s federally approved Every Student Succeeds Act, could decide to close the school permanently, temporarily close the school and reopen as a non-district charter school or give parents a choice to enroll their children in either a charter, magnet or private school.
The fourth and final option would be to recreate the school, which could involve a complete overhaul of the staff.
Bissmeyer said he and his team are leaning toward a solution that combines option three, providing more choice, and option four, a complete overhaul.
“We have some creative freedom to put together something to make a difference,” he said
An overhaul, however, won’t be that easy, especially since it is largely contingent on manpower. Bissmeyer said it is difficult to find and retain qualified staff.
“We can’t find teachers and staff who want to work here,” he said. “The first question they ask is, ‘Where’s the Starbucks?’”
If District leaders choose the first two options, the families of the approximately 370 students could send their children 30 miles away to Chama Elementary School or 39 miles away to the Tierra Amarilla Elementary School.
Since 2014, the respective schools have averaged Ds on their annual report cards, based on a four-point scale.
Converting the school into a charter school isn’t necessarily a formula for success, when one considers the performance record of other charter schools within Rio Arriba County’s borders.
The four-year average for McCurdy Charter School and La Tierra Montessori Charter School is a C and Cariños Charter School’s is an F.
Dulce officials will receive an undisclosed financial allocation from the $10 million set aside by the Public Education Department, to give the troubled schools extra support.
The Department will also continue offering programs, such as Teachers Pursuing Excellence, Principals Pursuing Excellence and the K-3 plus initiatives to improve classroom outcomes.
The money will be allocated to the various school districts, through competitive grants, in addition to the money they will receive through the State Equalization Guarantee (SEG) funding formula.
Public Education Department secretary designate Christopher Ruskowski said schools like Española Middle School, that are on the cusp of falling into more Rigorous Intervention Status because they earned three consecutive Fs, will get the full three years to improve the school’s grades.
He said his department isn’t promoting charter schools as an answer for the failing schools, but he instead sees it as one of many options for bringing about drastic change in a failing school.
In the few months Bissmeyer has led the District, he has observed attitudes and behaviors like truancy, poor parental engagement, dysfunctional school Boards and the Department’s bureaucracy as barriers to success.
Dulce Elementary School interim principal Marcella Maddux, Head Teacher Robert Cooker, along with Board President Levi Pesata, Vice President Wesley Vigil, Secretary Phillip Salazar and Board Member LaVonna James did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.