Griegos Elementary School

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Griegos Elementary School
Albuquerque, N.M.

New Mexico has few rivals for the poor academic performance of its children. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the most respected measure of academic achievement, New Mexico ranks consistently near the bottom of the nation. In fourth-grade reading, for example, only Louisiana performs worse. With large populations of low-income, rural, Hispanic, and American-Indian children—groups that, on average, post lower achievement levels than their more privileged peers—New Mexico has few schools that can boast that almost all students meet state reading, writing, and math standards.

Griegos Elementary School can make that claim. Here, in a working-class area of Albuquerque, 91 percent of fifth-grade students met state reading standards in 2009, compared to 59 percent of the state’s fifth-graders.

Griegos is a relatively small school in a stable neighborhood where many teachers remember teaching the parents and even grandparents of their current students. Three-quarters of the children are Hispanic and about 60 percent low-income. Yet in recent years, the school’s high proficiency rates have begun attracting students from some of the families in the affluent area nearby.

Principal Tom Graham—who answers the telephone, “Griegos Elementary School, best school in Albuquerque!”—attributes the school’s success to high expectations for all students and a “traditional” approach to instruction, meaning that students have to memorize their multiplication tables and write book reports. And teachers say they figure out what students need to learn and then do whatever it takes to make it happen.
“We have the same expectations for all students, rich or poor,” Graham said. Every student is expected to meet standards, and teachers spend time working together to build lessons and identify any student who is having trouble, using individual portfolios kept by the students themselves to track their progress.

Having high expectations doesn’t mean that the staff doesn’t appreciate that some children may face real difficulties, ranging from difficult home lives to learning disabilities. Yet educators refrain from using challenges outside the classroom to excuse poor student performance. “We keep you safe, make you warm or cool, and give you a meal; then you have to learn,” Graham said. “I’m sorry if your mom’s in jail, but this is your escape route. You’re as good as anybody when you’re here.”

Graham arrived nine years ago to a school that had, by his own account and that of several teachers, been well led for a long time by the previous principal. It was a comfortable neighborhood school, but it had never been particularly high achieving. Nothing Graham or the teachers say indicate that the improvement over the past few years has been dramatic. Rather, as the state standards were put in place, the school  heightened its focus on what students needed to learn. As accountability mechanisms took hold, teachers identified who needed extra help and thought deeply about how to provide that help.

Although the staff at Griegos expresses some reservations about the federal No Child Left Behind law, which set up these accountability mechanisms, Graham gives it credit for jump-starting school improvement. “It’s woken up the public; it’s woken up some of the teachers,” he said. “I don’t think people consciously said, ‘we’re not going to teach those kids,’ but it just happened.”

High expectations at Griegos translate into an understanding that if kids aren’t learning something, the teachers need to change what they’re doing.  The school’s math instruction, for example, reflects that awareness. A few years ago, the Albuquerque school district decreed that schools needed to choose one of a few math programs, and Griegos faculty chose Everyday Math. Teachers say they worked hard to implement the complex math program that is aimed at building a conceptual understanding of math with little time spent on building knowledge of basic math facts and processes. The staff rolled out this curriculum by rote the first year, one teacher said, “Then the results from the testing came back and we saw that the children were really hurt by not knowing the basics.”

Since then, the teachers have continued to faithfully teach the Everyday Math program, but now they supplement it with multiplication tables and basic algorithms.  The result: In 2010, 89 percent of Hispanic fifth-graders at Griegos met state math standards, with 42 percent exceeding them. This is a startling contrast with the state, where 45 percent of the state’s fifth-grade students met state math standards. Among the state’s Hispanic fifth-graders, 39 percent met state math standards, with 7 percent exceeding them.

The school’s improved math scores convinced teachers that students must be able to retrieve basic math facts automatically in order to be able to do more advanced math—a view shared by many mathematicians.  That kind of empirical practicality pervades Griegos, where teachers identify the standards students need to meet and then provide the instruction needed. Another way of putting it is that they don’t permit a program—no matter how good—to trump the needs of their students.

As news of Griegos’s success has permeated throughout the city, teachers say they are often asked the school’s secret. Fourth-grade teacher Loretta Casaus told of one teacher who left Griegos to teach at another school;  other educators besieged her with questions about how a Title I school could be so successful. “She said, ‘they work long hours, they work hard to get the kids ready, they teach the standards.’” To which Casaus added, “We work together as a staff and if someone’s not pulling their weight we let them know.”

Add to that “secret” an old-fashioned attitude to citizenship: Every student is expected to adhere to the “Griegos Way,”  summed up in the school motto, “Do the right thing at the right time.” Students who misbehave often have to weed the yard or go on “trash patrol” with Graham, who has a military dedication to tidy surroundings. A Marine attack jet pilot for twenty years, Graham becomes visibly upset when he encounters an unswept entry way, much less litter in the hallway.  The retired major also brings a military sense of discipline to the question of attendance. A second absence often means Graham’s appearance at the student’s home, his visit emphasizing to parents the importance of sending their children to school.

Graham’s presence and his bonds with students permeate the school, as evidenced at lunchtime by dozens of kids who join the principal for a brisk walk around the schoolyard, followed by a lively game of kickball.

Combining close attention to the school environment, an expectation that everyone “do the right thing at the right time,” and teacher collaboration so that all students meet or exceed standards, Griegos provides a model of excellence in a state with far too few such examples.

November 24 2010