Christopher Ruszkowski is now acting secretary of education for New Mexico. He is shown here in a fall 2016 selfie with Pauline Sanchez of Edgewood Middle School, winner of the 2016 New Mexico True Reading Challenge. (Submitted Photo)
The new head of education for the state plans to visit Roswell and the Chaves County area at the start of the school year.
New Mexico deputy secretary for education Christopher Ruszkowski has been named acting secretary of education by Gov. Susana Martinez.
“As the school year begins, it is going to be incredibly exciting to visit the schools,” he said. “I especially want to to visit the ‘A’ schools and see what they are doing well, those best practices that can be shared with other schools.”
Ruszkowski began his position Wednesday, a day after Hanna Skandera left the post she had held for seven years. She announced her resignation June 8, saying she will take some time off before deciding her next step. Her tenure often was fraught with controversy as some teachers and teachers’ unions opposed her decisions regarding student testing, teachers’ evaluations and other matters.
Yet gains were seen in student and school performance over the past years as well. Graduation rates rose to 71 percent in 2016, after New Mexico had the lowest statewide graduation rate in the nation in 2015 at 69 percent. The number of highly effective or exemplary teachers has increased 30 percent since 2014, and the number of schools graded “A” or “B” has grown 25 percent since 2011, according to information from the Public Education Department.
Offering some differences, Ruszkowski brings experience as a public school teacher and a teacher trainer to the table. He also has experience working with Democrats as a former associate secretary of the Delaware Department of Education.
“A lot of the work that Roswell is doing is really good,” Ruszkowski said, explaining that he previously has visited Chaves County schools, including Roswell’s Parkview Early Learning Center and Del Norte Elementary School. He also has worked with the Roswell Independent School District through the state Principals Pursuing Excellence mentorship program. “Some of what I saw in terms of teaching (at Del Norte) was very exciting.”
Ruszkowski said that his priorities include encouraging educators to shift their mindsets about what achievements are possible and what methods can be used.
“I was a middle school teacher in Little Haiti in the Miami area, and I saw my kids go on to become doctors, engineering executives and Googlers, as they call themselves — they work for Google,” he said. “That our kids who come from poverty could rise to the top has totally disproven a lot of the traditional thinking.”
Education that can create “massive migration” in a person’s socioeconomic life is a theme close to his heart. He is a child of a Polish immigrant who believed in the ability of public schools to provide the means for change.
Ruszkowski also advocates the uses of technological advances, especially the internet, to enhance learning. He said the state is helping students learn beyond the classroom in several ways, including by allowing them to take the Pre-SAT exam for free, which then enables them to receive free lessons from an online academy to enhance learning in areas where they might have some weakness.
“That kind of personalized, 24/7 learning wasn’t available when I was a kid, that’s for sure,” he said.
Technology aids classroom teachers as well because online resources make lesson plans and instructional materials available from all parts of the country. “That means a teacher in Roswell can share lesson plans with a teacher in Boston.”
Ruszkowski also said that he wants to see sharing of best practices and effective learning materials beyond district boundaries. He said that Gallup and Gadsden school districts, for example, have demonstrated significant gains while dealing with large numbers of English language learners and students experiencing other challenges to academic achievement.
The state’s efforts to reform bilingual education led to public outcry earlier in the year, but Ruszkowski said state officials are involved in “intensive engagement” with tribal nation leaders, English language learners, teachers and other stakeholders to discuss policy changes.
“I think it is helping that we are getting the word out that we are not cutting the budget and that our intent is to increase access to effective programs for our English language learners,” he said.
Ruszkowski said his focus “three days in” is not on his career, but on the students.
“I feel incredibly honored to serve the kids of New Mexico.”