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September 2010: Magnets offer school choice

This guest column appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

One of the things you’ll hear during election season – maybe every season – is a discussion about “school choice.” It’s a topic Albuquerque Public Schools doesn’t weigh in on very often, in part because it’s not an easy talking point for a district that has 139 schools and a variety of challenges.

But I like to talk about choice because one of my goals as the district’s superintendent is to make sure people know this district offers lots of options for kids and parents who may not like the traditional school model.

You know that model. You probably attended that model. And truth be told, that model still works for thousands and thousands of Albuquerque children.

But we as a district need to do more to help kids whose needs and goals are different. That’s why I’m so proud of our newest magnet school, Nex+Gen Academy High School, and why APS is willing to put capital, effort and reputations behind the possible purchase of the old First Baptist Church site so that we may build a magnet K-8 school for the arts.

I believe one reason New Mexico’s charter school movement gained traction in the first decade of the 21st century was the belief that APS and other school districts weren’t offering choice. That may have been the case. But the APS Board of Education and I plan to battle for the hearts and minds of our students and parents on the choice question. That means we have to do things differently. The result: You’ll have more options, better options, and kids will get a better education.

Nex+Gen and a performing arts school will not be charter schools. They’re smaller, more directed schools under an APS umbrella that will report to me just like, say, the principals at Eldorado High or Valle Vista Elementary School do. Students will be tested as they are at our other schools, and they’ll be expected to meet the same standards. And while it might not be politically expedient to say this, I look forward to the day when we can recruit charter school candidates in the same way some charters recruit kids from traditional APS schools, particularly at the high school level.

None of this is a knock on charters. Many of them perform very well. Those that do have raised expectations, and that’s a good thing. But there are some charters that haven’t performed as well.

I like magnets because, frankly, we can monitor them better – and provide the numbers that will let you know whether they’re doing well. I have to acknowledge that this is where we’ve fallen down in APS. For years, we told you we had “magnet” schools within our traditional schools, when in many cases, our offerings weren’t all that different or special – and surely didn’t incentivize kids and parents to go to that school.

I can tell you that we’re working hard to change that fact. We want to offer different kinds of magnets at schools we already have – magnets with accountability – so that we may continue to earn your trust on the choice question. It’s something I’ll work hard on this year, and I hope to report back soon on how we’re doing.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll visit the brand-new Nex+Gen Academy on the Del Norte High campus. It’s an amazing concept based on 21st century equipment, skills and techniques. We’re proud to have created a public-private partnership with folks like Sandia Labs and Intel, and it’s my hope that we’ll be able to replicate this at another site – preferably in the south end of town – very soon.

It’ll be another APS magnet, of course. One you can choose.

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