What’s Wrong with Santa Fe’s Public Schools?

Date May 4, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Author Alan M. Webber

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Family


This is a wonderful time of year! For one thing, graduation is in the air. There's nothing as optimistic as the sight of another group of young people collecting their high school diplomas and heading toward the next stage of life, filled with pride, with a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of self-worth and self-confidence.

But, of course, for that to happen, kids have to graduate.

And for that to happen, they have to stay in school.

Santa Fe kids, unfortunately, don't. They don't stay in school and therefore they don't graduate. The numbers are a little hazy, but between our two public high schools, the drop-out rate is somewhere above 50%.

That's right. More than 50% of the kids who start high school as freshmen don't make it to that moment of accomplishment where they hear their name called and get handed that precious diploma.

Now, if 50% of the patients who checked into the hospital here in Santa Fe died, that would be a public scandal.

If 50% of the dogs that people in Santa Fe are so proud of suddenly disappeared one day, there would be a public outcry.

If 50% of the art that was scheduled to be sold at Indian Market were stolen under mysterious circumstance, Santa Fe would rise up as a unified community to solve the crime and bring the perps to justice.

But when more than 50% of Santa Fe's children-the city's most precious and valuable and cherished resource-drop out of high school, no one seems to care. Life goes on. Nobody objects. No one declares a state of emergency. It's just the way it is.

Of course, there are explanations, or more accurately, excuses.

One seasoned school veteran blames the drop-out rate on parents. If parents really cared about their kids' educations, they'd see to it they went to school. Or the blame could be put on the Santa Fe living wage: Why go to school, the thinking goes, when you can quit school and get a really decent wage doing even the most menial jobs? (Of course, no one explains to a 16 year old kid that without that high school diploma chances are good you'll be doing that menial job the rest of your life. The immediate gratification when you're that age is too strong.) Another explanation says that these days getting that actual high school diploma isn't that important; a GED has become more socially acceptable. Finally, the school board comes in for criticism in private meetings and some public discussions. They interfere where they shouldn't and don't lead where they should, so the blame falls on their shoulders.

The truth is, none of those excuses tells the real story.

The truth is actually a lot worse.

About four years ago Santa Fe public schools started a small pilot project to test an idea. The idea was that a small learning community, with a group of only 20 to 25 kids and a dedicated group of 5 teachers, could change the school experience for kids entering high school. The kids would encourage each other to stick with it; the teachers would know each kid personally and tailor the learning to each kid's individual learning style and learning need.

Guess what?

It worked. By the end of the school year the kids in the program were blowing the socks off the rest of the freshman class. They were showing improvement in reading and math of two to three grade levels. The kids in the program who had special educational needs made the biggest gains. And boys, who often suffer severely in high school, did better than girls. The program was a huge success.

Since that pilot project proved its value, the Santa Fe public schools have not embraced the idea. They haven't grabbed it and made it the center of a new initiative to keep kids in school.

No, they've basically allowed it to falter. The name is still there. The structure for small learning communities exists, sort of. But there's no commitment, no dedication, no willingness to shake up the status quo and take on the high school drop-out rates that are at the level of an epidemic.

There is, in a word, no leadership.

Compare that performance to Arizona and what that state has tried to do to confront its educational crisis. When public educators in Arizona were told that their schools faced an educational future that could doom the state's economy, its quality of life, and its social fabric, leaders there rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

Partnering with Jim Collins, America's leading business and management thinker, they produced a landmark study: "Why Some Schools With Latino Children Beat the Odds . . . and Others Don't."€ This detailed analysis destroyed all the myths and excuses that weak and ineffectual school officials fall back on to explain why things can't be changed and why schools can't be made better. Instead, these can-do leaders produced a clear, decisive blue-print for educational improvement in Arizona. The findings:

Success in changing public education depends on disciplined thought-creating a clear bottom line for every student's success and conducting frequent in-school assessments to spot problems early and insist on improvement for every student. It requires disciplined people-it's up to a steady and strong principal to focus on things that make schools constantly improve and to keep providing leadership even in the face of obstacles, and it's up to that principal to forge partnerships and collaboration with everyone involved. That's part of the job, not an excuse for failure. And success depends on disciplined action-success comes from sticking with a program once it's implemented and making it better, rather than jettisoning it; and success comes one student at a time, so that education is personalized. It's not mass-produced, it's created individually, for each student, tailored to their needs and their gifts.

Disciplined thought, disciplined people, disciplined action.

Santa Fe public schools haven't had those three elements. And so, instead, Santa Fe high schools have drop-out rates that should make city leaders declare a city emergency and convene a state of crisis conference to do something. Because on high school graduation day in Santa Fe, more than half the kids won't show up. Nothing could be scarier for Santa Fe's future than that.