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Educators consider University High’s future

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Low graduation rates at University High School during recent years have led to a “school redesign” initiative. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

State, RISD engage in school ‘redesign’ effort

University High School is undergoing a redesign to improve its functioning and effectiveness, and some school district board members and residents are asking whether students are being served well as it operates now.

University High has been identified by local and state educators as a school in need of improvement because of low graduation rates, said LaShawn Byrd, principal of the school in the south part of the city near the Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell campus.

In 2018, the latest year for which state data is available, its four-year graduation rate was 37.2%. By comparison, the four-year graduation rate for 2018 was 74.4% for Goddard and 67.2% for Roswell High. For the five-year period from 2014-18, University High’s four-year graduation rate averaged 29.46%.

An attempt to redress that issue — and answer the broader question of how University High can better meet students’ needs — led to the redesign initiative.

“We applied to be part of the high school redesign network,” she said. “University High was accepted into cohort 2. What we have been accepted into this year is only a planning year.”

The New Mexico High School Redesign Network is a collaboration between the Priority Schools Bureau of the New Mexico Public Education Department and the Cross States High School Redesign Collaborative, which involves seven states and is led by the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University School of Education.

According to Nancy Martira, director of communications with the Public Education Department, a one-year planning phase is typically followed by a two-year implementation process for those schools that emerge from the planning year with an accepted plan and budget. State funding for implementation is expected to be available with an approved plan.

The redesigns enable “struggling high schools in high-needs communities to reinvent themselves and become institutions that propel adolescents to adult success in their communities in the 21st century,” Martira said.

University High School was created in the 1980s as a public alternative school to Goddard High and Roswell High. It is meant to serve students who are struggling to graduate at the other schools for one reason or another, or who want a different type of high school environment because they are parents of young children, work full-time jobs to support themselves or their families, or have other unique life circumstances.

The current enrollment is 138. But, at the Jan. 14 Board of Education meeting of the Roswell Independent School District, the two newly elected board members, Hope Morales and Hilda Sanchez, had many questions based on their understanding that at-risk students are being denied admittance.

City Councilor Juan Oropesa, describing himself as a concerned citizen, also addressed the topic.

“I understand that the changes at University High will prohibit a student to attend University High unless the student goes through a process of making an application, go through an interview process and a screening process,” Oropesa said. “This, in my opinion, shatters the purpose of why it was set up in the first place. RISD is a public education institution, which should welcome students with open arms — not to mention, as you know, that funding for the district is determined by a number of factors, (one of which) is the number of students it serves.”

Board member James Edwards also said he has recognized that the number of graduates from the school has declined over the years.

“The numbers didn’t just start going down this year or the year before,” he said. “It started going down about six or seven years ago.”

He also said that University High “has saved people’s lives” and that he often has talked to people who are impressed by the caliber of University High graduates.

“We have to get back to what we had,” Edwards said.

Byrd said she would not use the term “screening process,” but she confirmed that University High requires an application that includes transcripts, attendance records, discipline records and current grade point average. There is also an interview with prospective students and, when appropriate, their guardians. She explained that the admission process has been in place since before her arrival two years ago and knows it dates back at least through the prior principal’s tenure.

She acknowledged that some students have been denied entrance or have decided not to enroll after going through the application and interview. She said she could not estimate the percentage of applicants who did not enroll in her two years, but she thought it was lower than 50%.

Interim Superintendent Michael Gottlieb said that he couldn’t comment on the past, but is aware that the school has interviewed 65 students in the past two weeks and is working to admit as many as possible.

Both he and Byrd said that there are good reasons if students don’t enroll.

“If we do decline that student,” Byrd said, “it is based on a number of factors.”

She said it could be that students and parents decide the school isn’t a good fit, or that students realize they will not graduate in four years because they have missed too many days of school, or that they find out that they will not be able to take the courses they need or want.

“I only have five full-time core teachers,” she said. “So we are really limited with the number of students we can take, as well as the services that we can offer them. If they need calculus (to graduate), I can’t give them calculus because I don’t have a teacher teaching calculus.”

She added that the school doesn’t want to rely on computer-based courses too much, believing that instructor-led courses provide better outcomes.

She said the graduation issue affects not only University High, but their “home” schools, either Goddard High and Roswell High, because the state has a “shared responsibility model.” That means that any “negative points” earned because a student did not graduate in four years is shared by University High and the home school. Likewise, any “positive points” for timely graduation are shared.

Part of the planning phase of the redesign is to gather information from educators, parents and students at University High and other schools about what can be done to better serve students, as well as the community, Byrd said. The blueprint, which is the application for implementation, must be submitted to the Priority Schools Bureau by May 1.

Gottlieb said he has raised the issue with the state Public Education Department Secretary about changing the way alternative high schools are measured. He said he doesn’t think that it is reasonable to expect large numbers of alternative high school students to graduate within four years, given their special circumstances.

“It is just one of the things we have to maneuver through and discuss with the PED,” he said. “What are the best solutions for an alternative-type high school?”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.