Opinion: Family’s Tale of 2 Schools Shows the Perils and the Promise of Public Education in New Mexico

The Giovine family (Credit: Seth Saavedra)

Updated July 6, 2023

In the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a chaotic morning ritual familiar to many families plays out. “Luciano! Time to get up.” Bows in their hair, Milani, 6, and Jazalea, 3, are ready for the day ahead. They beckon their 10-year-old brother, Luciano, to hurry up and finish his scrambled eggs.

Monique Giovine orchestrates every minute of this intricate dance for her three children. She’s been up for an hour already, seeing her husband, Roberto, off to work before rousing the little ones.

Luciano rushes out the front door, catching the bus to the local elementary school, where he’s a fifth-grader. The girls hop into the family Honda to take Milani to school.

The difference in their departures tells another story familiar in New Mexico: Luciano’s education at the zoned neighborhood school stands in stark contrast to Milani’s.

Luciano’s school bus ride ends each morning at Los Padillas Elementary, part of Albuquerque Public Schools. The school, like the neighborhood where it is located, has struggled, and it is in the midst of the state’s Most Rigorous Intervention process, or MRI.

MRI is a designation enacted by the New Mexico Public Education Department for schools earning five or more consecutive F grades. Besides Los Padillas, three other schools must reorganize under the program to improve student learning. All four had until today to resubmit their turnaround plans after their first proposals were rejected by the state.

That Los Padillas has languished for decades is well known in the neighborhood. In its most recent ranking, fewer than 10 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in reading, meaning only three of the students in Luciano’s class are at grade level. He’s not one of them.

His younger sister, in contrast, is doing well in kindergarten — she even helps her older brother with his homework — after her name was drawn in a lottery last spring for a charter school called MAS that her mother found out about by chance.

In fact, Monique wasn’t sure what she was hearing when she first learned of the school; it sounded like mas — “more” in Spanish. But MAS, Mission Achievement and Success, was recruiting students from Albuquerque’s South Valley, offering busing and a different approach to education. And that school with the funny name unlocked a newfound belief in what’s possible for the Giovine family themselves and their children.

Founded in 2012, MAS has earned three A ratings in a row and unapologetically focuses on college and career preparation for all students. With student proficiency rates two or three times those of schools with similar demographics, MAS is defining new realities for Albuquerque’s most vulnerable students.

In a state where just over 30 percent of children under the age of 18 live in poverty, exceeding the national average by 11 points, schools play a vital role in breaking pernicious generational cycles. Yet, with 77 percent and 73 percent of New Mexico fourth-graders below proficient in reading and math, respectively, to be poor is to be poorly educated.

After her first visit to MAS, Monique was immediately sold. “I saw students excited about reading and focused on academics,” she said. She completed applications for Luciano and Milani, but only Milani’s name came up in the admissions lottery.

For Luciano, it meant another year of going to school near home, in a neighborhood with deep family roots — Monique’s mother’s family carried the Padilla surname, and she has spent most of her life there.

Originally named San Andres de los Padillas, the unincorporated town has a storied past: Diego de Padilla was granted ownership of the land in 1718, after his ancestors were forced to abandon it during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Many families have been there for centuries.

The first Los Padillas School opened its doors in 1901, predating New Mexico’s statehood by 11 years. With such a deep history and fierce independence, change can come at a glacial pace. Los Padillas broke ground on its first public water system only late last year.

For all the beauty found in the Rio Grande Valley, Los Padillas is not without its troubles. It has a reputation for tough characters, many of whom Monique counts as relatives. To grow up here is to have a chip on your shoulder and a stiff spine.

Doubted because of their last name or ZIP code, those from the South Valley must conjure an unshakable self-confidence. As is the case in many New Mexico communities, their margin for error is razor thin, with far too many coming out on the wrong side.

Monique’s parents worked hard to ensure she never attended the school bearing her family name just down the street. They gathered the few dollars they had for tuition at a small Catholic school before transferring her to a high school in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, the most affluent area of town.

She would love to do the same for Luciano, but that’s not financially feasible. Roberto, her husband, puts in long hours with the Albuquerque Water Utility Authority to make ends meet for the family of five.

But through her chance discovery of MAS and sheer determination, the Giovine family discovered one of the best-kept secrets in the state.

Educators have praised the school’s focus on culture and accountability, and its commitment to help students go on to climb the social ladder. This in large part explains why MAS has similar demographics to Los Padillas but starkly different outcomes. Nearly 43 percent of MAS students come from the South Valley and 99 percent identify as low-income, compared with 71 percent statewide. Additionally, 23 percent are English learners, compared with 13 percent across New Mexico.

As the founder and principal of MAS, JoAnn Mitchell says plainly that there is no secret sauce to the school’s success. While students at MAS have academic growth rates well beyond similar schools in New Mexico, there remains a commitment to continuous improvement.

“As a leader, I share with staff and students alike that we always need to take a moment to celebrate our successes,” she said, “but we cannot linger in the moment for too long because we know there is more work to be done, and after all, each success simply provides us the confidence and the fuel needed to forge ahead to the next.”

MAS was recently approved to open a second campus in Albuquerque, the first charter school ever give the green light to do so. The second campus aims to open in the fall, providing relief to hundreds of families who, according to MAS, are on the school’s waiting list.

Meanwhile, Luciano continues on at Los Padillas Elementary, doing well in math but far below grade level in reading. Milani is nearly through her kindergarten year at MAS, excelling in all subjects tested on the district iStation assessments.

At a recent basketball game, Milani figured out the word “roadrunner” before Luciano, despite being four years younger. Milani rarely has her own homework; she helps her brother with his. At MAS, homework is rarely assigned because the school day is longer so more direct support can be provided each day.

The biggest difference Monique sees in her children is their passion for learning. “When I drop Milani off at MAS, she can’t wait,” Monique said. “There’s a unique joy and excitement for learning there.” Meanwhile she finds Luciano is disengaged or uninspired, particularly in reading, where he has struggled.

But next fall, because siblings are automatically accepted, Luciano starts at MAS as a sixth-grader (Jazalea will be automatically admitted as well), and he’s more excited than anxious. He knows there will be an adjustment period to the challenging classwork and longer school days. But he’s ready to rise to the challenge.

Seth Saavedra is an education blogger for EducationPost.org and a former middle school teacher. He was born and raised in New Mexico and lives in Albuquerque.

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