October 2010: Hitting the road to listen, learn

This guest column appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

Visiting with students at Seven Bar Elementary.

Visiting with students at Seven Bar Elementary. See more photos >>

One of the best things about being the superintendent of a large urban school district is the opportunity to personally get out and see firsthand what is and isn't working. Those sorts of assessments are hard to make from behind the desk and, while a lot of my time must be spent dealing with the byproducts of education like the budget and personnel issues, I don't ever want to lose sight of what drives Albuquerque Public Schools, and that is student success.So these days I'm racking up my frequent visitor miles in our schools.

From Atrisco Heritage Academy High School to Double Eagle Elementary and every school in between, I plan to visit as many campuses as possible within the 1,230 square miles of this district.

So far this school year, I've made at least a dozen official school visits, and every one of them has been meaningful. Although the school administration sets the agenda for these visits, they aren't staged. I've spent just about my entire life in schools, and I can tell you there are some things you just can't fake — like school spirit, teacher dedication and student interest.

At Cibola High School, I visited some classrooms where students were given the chance to ask me questions. The students were engaging. There are the universal questions you encounter with this age group: What does the superintendent do, how much does the job pay and what kind of hours are required? It's interesting to see the surprise on their faces when I respond because they've never really had cause to contemplate my job.

The real fun is when we turn the tables and I ask the questions. In this particular class at Cibola, I wanted the students to rate their teachers. This is tough when you consider high school students have as many as seven teachers a semester. The results of the unofficial survey were inspiring, with the majority of the students grading their teachers a 7 out of 10. Not bad.

It's feedback like this that helps me gauge the pulse of a school. Yes, we have test scores, graduation rates and surveys to assess our performance, but data can be misinterpreted. Faces and voices generally don't lie.

Schools aren't all that different than they were years ago when I walked the halls with books in hand. Sure, there are more body piercings and hair colors than I saw during my school days. But the kids themselves and their aspirations haven't changed all that much. They understand that a good education is their ticket to a better life, and that's what they're — and we're — after.

The obvious change in our classrooms is the advantage of technology. I can't count the number of teachers I've witnessed effectively using the electronic whiteboards taxpayers have purchased for the district. I even had one older, self-proclaimed "traditional" teacher tell me he believes the interactive whiteboards will transform education forever. He may be right, based on the enthusiasm I've seen for this new classroom staple, though I continue to stress that progress in the classroom doesn't happen without good teachers.

If you haven't seen a whiteboard yet, or just haven't visited a school in a while, I invite you to make arrangements to do just that sometime soon. If you can't physically get out to a classroom, log on to In Step with Winston and take a virtual tour of our district with me.

These school visits energize me. They're a reality check and a reminder that while we can get caught up in our own life scripts, there is an entire generation out there that can't afford to let us lose sight of the prize.