'We've got to focus on facts'

Superintendent of distressed Questa schools stays the course in the face of turmoil

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 9/5/19

When he started the job in February of this year, Questa superintendent Michael Lovato walked into a district fraught with conflict, poor performance numbers, …

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'We've got to focus on facts'

Superintendent of distressed Questa schools stays the course in the face of turmoil

Posted

When he started the job in February of this year, Questa superintendent Michael Lovato walked into a district fraught with conflict, poor performance numbers, scant funding and, in his words, a "lack of leadership."

He faced an immediate inquiry from the state about improper accommodation of special-needs students. Just recently, in his seventh month, he made a tough decision to close the tiny Río Costilla elementary school known as Southwest Academy of Learning, despite a huge outcry from the Costilla community.

"The part that frustrates me," Lovato said, "is that it's more about the winning and the internal conflict than about the kids' safety. Everybody should make decisions based on safety. I wouldn't put my daughter there."

But he tempered that with admiration for Costilla. "The community part of it? How they've created a community outside of the building … I think that's great. I'd want my daughter in an environment like that. But as far as the structure of the building? No."

Closing a community school

After doing a walk-through with school board members in late July, which revealed mold, sewage gas odors, soft flooring and dead animals, Lovato ordered an air-quality assessment (see document on taosnews.com) by an industrial hygienist. While those findings didn't register as hazardous, the Albuquerque consultant who did the testing noted possible roof leaks, structurally unsound flooring and roofing, and an inadequate ventilation system that warranted additional assessments.

On the strength of that, Lovato declared the situation a safety and health emergency, which gave him sole authority under state statutes to close the school, at least temporarily. He announced a plan to bus the Costilla students 20 miles to Alta Vista Elementary in Questa, which outraged Costilla parents. Many vowed to enroll their kids in Taos or Red River schools rather than place them in a school that has had its own health and safety issues for years.

A recent example: Alta Vista sustained a sewage backup just after the current academic year started that rendered the school's 1970s-era cafeteria uninhabitable. "The kids had to eat their lunch in the gym for two days," said parent Juan Cisneros, who has two children attending Alta Vista and is currently running for a position on the school board. This was confirmed by Wanda Brown, the cafeteria supervisor, who added that the backup was caused by faulty repairs made to the sewer line last year.

Río Costilla parents have argued that the Questa school board had been trying for years to close their school as a cost-cutting measure and that this was merely their latest stratagem. They claimed that closure of the tiny but high-performing school would effectively dissolve their community and that busing their kids to Alta Vista would take an hour and a half each way.

Others said that the Questa students and parents viewed them as "outsiders" and made them feel unwelcome.

However, most of them, according to Lovato, either changed their mind before following through or decided after enrolling their students in other schools to place them in Alta Vista. "They also exaggerated their numbers," he said. Rather than the 30 students they claimed, he said there were only 15 who were actually registered to attend the Río Costilla school this year.

According to his numbers, 13 of the 30 Costilla-area kids had already been registered to attend Alta Vista before the school closure. Of the 15 signed up to attend Río Costilla, eight are now attending Taos Charter and other schools outside the district and seven are registered at Alta Vista, including one who is homebound and four who have yet to show up for school.

Though he claims that he based the Río Costilla closure solely on safety and health concerns, Lovato had worked up detailed numbers to document that keeping the tiny school open was putting a serious strain on the district's budget.

"If you total everything - cost of staffing, utilities, transportation and so on - each kid at Río Costilla was costing the district about $21,000 ... versus about $4,000 for each kid at Alta Vista and Questa High School."

Lovato said this was causing additional conflict with Questa-area parents, who felt that their kids were getting shortchanged.

By the numbers

The tensions still simmer and the rumors continue to fly, yet Lovato conveys an air of relative calm. As he's often said at the board meetings and community forums, he wants to debunk the "conspiracy theories" and convince the community that he and the board have to base decisions on facts rather than emotions.

To debunk the rumor that parents and students are currently leaving Questa schools in droves, he pulled up enrollment numbers. The district currently has 283 enrolled in K through 12, down from 303 last year. That's consistent with the steady decline of enrollment in the district since the 2012/2013 school year.

For example, the district had 34 seventh-graders in 2012/2013. Last year, that number had dropped to 23, and this year there are 19 seventh-graders enrolled. It's a matter of jobs lost and a very low birth rate in the community, said Lovato--not of dissatisfaction with the schools.

"In housing, Questa has a vacancy rate of 60 percent," he added, "one of the highest in the state."

According to the district's Master Plan for 2017-2022 (see online at taosnews.com), however, enrollment numbers were projected to increase to a peak of 379 in 2016/2017 and to stay above 350 through 2022.

Does Lovato feel he's been held accountable for conditions that had existed for years when he walked in the door? "Yes, but that's part of the job, right? It's nothing I complain about," he said. "It is what it is."

"We've had a group of people who've made allegations to you [the Taos News], to the state [Public Education Department] and to the PSFA [Public School Funding Agency] about what's happening," Lovato said. "I've had to clarify the situation to these agencies, and they're both very understanding of why we're doing things."

Turning a district around

Is there any reason to feel optimistic about the Questa district's future? Lovato has a budget of $3.1 million to work with, plus federal grants for Title One and special education that add another $300,000 as well as state assistance of about $100,000 - all told, about $3.5 million. In his seven months on the job, he's moved quickly to implement changes.

"We have tons of things that we're turning around," he said. "For starters, we put together a common philosophy of how we deliver education. When I got here, there was a lack of leadership without a doubt. We had some great staff, but they were doing things in kind of a sporadic way.

"I hired two very competent principals [Kathy Gallegos for the junior high/high school; Carla Achuleta for Alta Vista Elementary], and we have a vision now and a unified mission on how we get back on track."

For K-8, he's implemented Advancement Via Individual Determination, a nationwide program that focuses on closing the achievement gap for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and refocusing their education, starting in kindergarten, onto a college-bound trajectory. Part of the benefit is changing the language used in the classroom, he said. "There's been a disconnect between the language our kids use and what's used in tests and assessments."

It's not that students don't understand the concepts, he added. They often get the answers wrong just because they speak a different language.

Training teachers

Lovato has also implemented training that will help teachers focus on how to ask questions. "It's easy for teachers to talk at students," he said. "We're changing the concept so that teachers stop talking at them and start asking questions. Instead of just telling them the answers, they guide them with questions toward finding the answers for themselves."

Lovato has used some of the district's Title One money to hire two instructional coaches to provide this and other teacher training. "We also got awarded a fine-arts grant of almost $300,000," he said, "so we were able to put 2.5 full-time employees on staff who are bringing back our music and band programs, starting with fourth grade. Before, we only had band at the high school. We'll now have art in the schools again as well, for the first time in I don't know how long."

Lovato added that they've used other grant money to give teachers a prep period, which they'd had to do without last year.

He also submitted an application last week to make Questa High an Early College school, which means students can include college courses in their curriculum and graduate with both a diploma and an associate degree or certificate. In addition, he's writing a grant proposal to procure the state's Community Schools funding, which could add another $50,000, although it wouldn't materialize until next academic year.

Lovato takes pride in having adopted Eureka Math™, an innovative program for teaching math, particularly to disadvantaged students, that was developed by nonprofit Great Minds and has been widely adopted nationwide.

He's also applied grant money to increase the district's ratio of iPads to students to 1:1 and has purchased an interactive 72-inch smartboard for every classroom that enables students to work collaboratively on a range of projects.

"Aside from the Costilla factor, the parents are on board with what we're doing," Lovato said. "We're getting things back on track here."

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