Tag: Christopher Ruszkowski

As Secretary, I visited all 89 school districts. This is what I learned.

As Secretary, I visited all 89 school districts. This is what I learned.

Yes, Our Students Are On The Rise: Reflections From 89 School District Visits-Christopher Ruszkowski

“There are so many schools that are demonstrating what is possible for all students regardless of socioeconomic status. . . . We must learn from them and many, many others.”

During my first week on the job last summer, teachers, superintendents, parents, and educational leaders implored me to “get out there” and talk to teachers in their classrooms, sit in desks with our students, focus on all of the positive things happening in our schools, and ensure more stakeholders have a voice in the policymaking and program development process.  After eighteen months on the road, and after visiting all 89 of New Mexico’s school districts and hundreds of schools including many of our state’s charter schools, I think back to that early encouragement with appreciation.

Our school communities across New Mexico are as vibrant as the state itself. I was there for Friday night lights in Eunice in their new football stadium, an early morning on the school bus in Newcomb in Central Consolidated, academic parent-teacher team night in Espanola, a visit to a Pre-K center in Bernalillo, a regular afternoon with the students of Columbus Elementary in Deming, the first day of a longer school year at Los Padillas Elementary in the South Valley, and a #NAEP2019 campaign launch (for the assessment that determines our national ranking) at Cien Aguas International Charter School near the Sunport earlier this fall, to name just a few. 

Based on input from the field, we launched the NM-True Straight-A Express, which visited and celebrated 100+ schools in New Mexico and has now been in-place for the past two years.  No district brought the noise and school spirit quite like Los Lunas, although the students and faculty of Cloudcroft held their own on top of the mountain and my recent stop in Fort Sumner showcased their fun-loving, no excuses attitude (yes, both at the same time).  I was wowed by the performances (and the academic rigor) at New Mexico School for the Arts and was impressed by charter schools like the single-gender Coral Community Charter School that maximize every inch of their non-traditional facility. 

“Get out there” was good advice—because it challenges so much of the wrongheaded, deficit-based, political rhetoric that we heard on the campaign trail in 2018 or that we consistently hear from the special interest groups that have been roaming the halls of the Roundhouse for decades.  There are so many schools that are demonstrating what is possible for all students regardless of socioeconomic status—perhaps most notably in the Gadsden Independent School District and at the K-12 charter school Mission Achievement and Success in Albuquerque.  We must learn from them and many, many others.  Certainly no two districts and no two schools in New Mexico are the same, but many of their best practices in improving student achievement are.  Whether at Jose Barrios Elementary in Silver City, San Lorenzo Elementary in Cobre Consolidated, El Capitan Elementary in Roswell or Gil Sanchez Elementary School in Belen, or within districts like Farmington and Gallup and Hobbs that have made systemic improvements, common themes emerge: the highest of expectations for all students, data-informed, data-driven practices, a growth mindset that permeates the culture and is embodied by principals and teachers, building student ownership in mastery of the content, finding ways to extend learning time beyond the traditional classroom hours, a focus on talent recruitment and development, and a spirit of innovation that coexists with the fundamentals of teaching and learning.  During this time, I’ve listened and learned about what is working in schools in New Mexico and looked to find ways to spread those lessons near and far.

And because of our collective commitment to identifying our state’s highest-performing teachers these past five years (those achieving two years of student achievement growth in single year!), I have been able to visit those teachers’ classrooms to study remarkable lessons driving significant student gains for students of all backgrounds in Tularosa, Loving, Bloomfield, Rio Rancho, and Las Cruces.  As the parallel-track NM-True Excellence in Teaching Tour began, I became even more proximate to our teachers, students, and families.  Now I was attending full lessons, bell-to-bell, in the shoes of our students—a Kindergarten lesson in Jal, a high school art lesson in Socorro, a middle school math observation with a Golden Apple teacher in APS.  My late afternoon classroom observation of Ms. Romero’s first-grade class in Pojoaque stands-out as some of the best early elementary instruction I’ve seen in the past decade—and a testament to how teacher quality changes students’ lives.  New Mexico’s teacher leader networks are now bringing those teachers together to share practices and ideas about teaching and the teaching profession, and their excellence will continue to spread and be shared.

My team and I consistently witnessed firsthand how the state’s most successful teachers and schools are relentless about using data and measurement, unleashing innovation in during and after-school settings, and are uncompromisingly student-centered in their approaches. These teachers and schools are often times dramatically altering the life courses of students from low-income communities, and they never do it by sugar-coating but rather through honesty and love (yes, we need more of that, too). This has been a constant reminder for us of just how much it matters for NMPED to be honest and transparent in terms of standards, assessment, and accountability — because of the civil rights, equity and economic competitiveness implications for all of New Mexico’s students.  And because we saw the greatness that was possible, regardless of student background, we also felt a moral responsibility to call-out, engage, and make additional resources available when students weren’t be well-served by their schools.  

I spent my days in Texico and Logan, Grady and Elida, Animas, Lovington, Portales, Corona, and Reserve—to name just a few.  I spent an afternoon talking with the entire faculty of the Des Moines School District, one of the state’s highest-performing, about their quest to be #1 (they’re close, by the way).  We held short roundtable discussions in Hatch Valley and Quemado, at Explore Academy and in Dora.  Listening to all 89 meant visiting and listening to EVERYONE.

And almost every week, I brought a handful of ideas back to NMPED in Santa Fe that came directly from an outstanding school leader or high-performing teacher across New Mexico.  We listened, and we responded: adding 15 days to the instructional calendar, launching the tour of our state’s best classrooms, the first-ever Excellence in Teaching Awards, moving from three to five performance levels on our early literacy tool, revising high school graduation requirements to focus more on CTE, raising the bar for teacher preparation programs, sending more emails and information directly to teachers and families, adopting new academic standards, a deeper focus on teacher mentoring, more funds for books and buses, launching more teacher-leader networks, and dozens more. 

About sixty really good ideas that impacted policy, resources, and implementation in-total—and none of these ideas originated in or around the Apodaca Building, home of NMPED.  Instead, they all came directly from the field. 

Our recent FY20 budget proposal to the New Mexico Legislature, the top-rated State Plan under ESSA, the expanding network of practitioners—each was formed almost entirely along vast stretches of road between schools and classrooms in our expansive and diverse state—during a time period when the best schools and the best teachers were driving educational policy.  I’ve learned so much from them, and I hope that they continue to be celebrated, listened to, and learned from.

My belief in the power and resilience of the countless teachers, families and students already doing the work of improving student outcomes has only strengthened.  New Mexico’s public education system now has the potential to transform into a true learning organization— informed by data, by best practices happening at the grassroots-level in our educators’ classrooms, by leveraging the power of raising expectations, and by continuing to consistently measure student outcomes.  Additional financial investment is inevitably coming (likely totaling $1 Billion during this decade, and already halfway there), and it will be our collective responsibility to account for proven accelerated progress in the years ahead.  To date, statewide, New Mexico’s student progress is unprecedented in the state’s history: 11,000 more students are doing math on grade level and 13,000 more students are reading on grade-level since 2015 – with Native American students improving their reading results more than any other group of students – by 8.2 percentage points. More students are taking and passing Advanced Placement (AP) exams, the statewide graduation rate is at an all-time high, and college remediation rates are at an all-time low. 

New Mexico students are, without question, on the rise.

The truth about what works is out there—it’s already happening in New Mexico—our challenge now is to ensure that it is happening everywhere, for all students, every day.  With admiration and appreciation, I thank you for our service to our students.  I leave this office inspired by the schools and classrooms that are redefining New Mexico’s future. 

ICYMI: Ruszkowski Is A Game-Changer

ICYMI: Ruszkowski Is A Game-Changer

Mr. R was my seventh-grade civics teacher, and then my eighth-grade U.S. history teacher.

We called (New Mexico’s acting Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowski) Mr. R because, you know, Ruszkowski was too difficult for most of us to pronounce. Most of us were first-generation kids born in north Miami to Caribbean immigrants, so needless to say his last name wasn’t too common. Neither was his teaching style: He was a well-versed, well-prepared teacher who taught us to think critically by both embracing and challenging the traditional middle-school social studies curriculum. Sure, he made sure that we mastered the basics – but he also introduced us to Bruce Springsteen, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and the Roots television mini-series of 1977, which was quite the revelation for many of us. He delivered his lesson plans for his seventh- and eighth-graders using literature, music, art, culture and media.

It was a learning experience unlike anything before. I learned about American political campaigns by running in a mock class election and losing to this popular kid, Victor, who was weak on policy but got the “mock media” to smear me. I dissected songs on the radio for political meaning. I learned that there were two sides, at minimum, to every social and economic issue – and was always frustrated that Mr. R would never tell us his opinion on any political issue! Later, in eighth grade, I ushered my family down the Oregon Trail – and learned what it was like for those who ventured west for a better life, and empathized with them.

Mr. R imparted in us a special appreciation for different kinds of culture and perspectives on the country and the world – cultural lessons that were outside of my “traditional” Jamaican and Lebanese home-grown roots.

With his guidance and letter of recommendation, I was one of a few kids from north Miami accepted to MAST Academy. At the time, MAST Academy was one of the top 50 high schools in the United States and situated in one of the most expensive ZIP codes, Key Biscayne, Fla. Now I was surrounded by some of the sharpest kids in the district, and I raised my game – just like Mr. R said I would. And right after high school, I interned with him at Miami Teaching Fellows, where I saw what it looked like to be an entrepreneur who fights inside the system for better outcomes for kids like me. Later on, with his mentorship and yet another letter of recommendation, I went on to study Economics and Government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I raised my game again – and graduated with honors in a little over three years.

Today, I’m a junior executive at a Fortune 200 company.

It is an honor and a blessing to have been one of Mr. R’s students. He is more than my former middle school teacher – he is now a lifelong mentor and someone I can call about big life decisions. And I now recognize more than ever that opportunities for upward mobility are not readily available to the students of minorities and low-income families without great teachers and access to great schools. He taught me to write persuasively, recommended great books to read by Caribbean authors, and gave me the confidence to go after something bigger than the standards society often imposed on me and other students like me.

These opportunities might not have existed without Mr. R. His expectations for me were higher than my expectations were for myself – I can’t wait to see what that means for the kids of New Mexico.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on Sunday, July 2nd.