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Covering the Pueblo City School Crisis – Interview with reporter Nic Garcia

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Nic Garcia | Chalkbeat.org

Nic Garcia | Chalkbeat.org

Nicholas Garcia is a Pueblo native who graduated in 2004 from Pueblo South. Prior to becoming a reporter for nonprofit education news network Chalkbeat, he was a reporter for Outfront, the leading LGBT news publication in Colorado.

Last month he wrote “Steel City Turnaround” the story of the ongoing struggles at Pueblo City Schools (District 60) and its hope of turning it around. He spent two weeks visiting the schools, talking with administration officials, teachers and families covering the crisis.

Currently, the district is facing state intervention if the district doesn’t see marked improvement by 2015, the end of its 5-year accountability clock.

I spoke with Garcia about his series “Steel City Turnaround,” the clock the district faces, and what needs to be done.

PULP: Why did you want to tell this story?

Nicholas: I’m from Pueblo and I have a niece going into the district. I felt it was important a Puebloan told the story because if someone from Denver told this story, Pueblo may not trust the piece because it was from an outsider.

At first, I got a hard no from the district. We went back and forth on the details but I knew I had to spend time in the schools. They finally gave me unprecedented access and I appreciate that from the district.

Your story paints a dire picture. If the district doesn’t improve the test scores, the state will have to come in. How worried is the district?

Of the two officials I spoke with, they were very optimistic Pueblo is going to beat the clock by 2015. Denver and Englewood school districts beat the clock in very similar situations in low performing schools. Englewood’s district is a mirror of Pueblo’s situation and they turned it around.

You write how Roncalli went from one of the best middle schools in Pueblo to one of the worst. What happened? 

When the demographics switched the staff at Roncalli was not prepared for the type of students who would attend. No one told them they [Roncalli] would be fundamentally unprepared for these students. It would be a completely different challenge to teach them than the students they had a few years before that.

As I wrote in the piece with a former assistant superintendent Branda Krage said, “The one thing the district didn’t do was to prepare the school.”

How did this demographic switch happen?

Since Corwin was a magnet school, parents have to apply to get their children into the school. Then a lottery picks the students. There are no disqualifiers to any applicant and because of open enrollment anyone is allowed to apply there.

If a student’s number isn’t picked, they default to their home region and many of these students’ home school was now Roncalli. So either families didn’t know they had to apply, they chose not to apply, or didn’t get in because of the lottery system.

Should Corwin’s principal be moved to say a school like Roncalli to fix it?

I believe Principal Julie Shue needs to stay put at Corwin. And you are starting to see Corwin’s best practices implemented district wide.

What you are seeing is District 60 providing parents with choices. There are going to be kids that are going to excel at Corwin but not at Pueblo Arts Academy and vice versa. Choices should be applauded but only if all choices are equal. The problem District 60 faced is not all school choices were equal—sometimes school choice is no choices at all.

I think they get that now.

There’s a quote in your piece about saying turnaround isn’t overnight for some kids, but can they afford to wait three years for the district to turn it around. What’s right here?

That burden has always plagued school districts. The key issues that make up a school like leadership, culture, and curriculum among others can have an immediate impact. Data shows there have been school districts in trouble similar to Pueblo City Schools and were able to correct this in a year.

Critics want to blame former Superintendent John Covington and the short time superintendents stay in Pueblo, is that fair? 

While many have privately pointed to John Covington, if you look at third party data during and after Covington’s time in the district, it wasn’t in disarray. So this is not all on Covington.

And the average superintendent sticks around for 2-3 years. Pueblo does not have abnormal turnover at the superintendent level in comparison with other districts.

What does the public need to understand about what the district has to do to “turn it around?”

Much of the turnaround has to do with good principals and highly effective teachers who understand curriculums, assessments, and how to interact with their student population. If you don’t have all this you don’t have a quality school system.

How much is the turnaround on the parents?

A school like Roncalli wasn’t ruined by the demographic switch. The school was ruined by the adults not caring enough about the demographic switch.

Pueblo hasn’t been a community that’s always valued education as probably as much as it should have. Forty years ago you could get a mill job without a high school diploma, so there wasn’t a real need to push your kids towards an education. Pueblo’s one or two generations from being able to understand the economic stranglehold of the Steel Mill. It’s going to take another generation for Pueblo to recognize it doesn’t need that huge juggernaut.

What, honestly, can the the community do?

There are a lot of hard working and smart educators in Pueblo who need Pueblo, and when I say Pueblo, the entire community needs to support them with tough love. That community needs to bend over backwards for the school district, and be prepared to hold them accountable if they fail.

The next school board meeting needs to be packed with parents, business owners, and grandparents asking how can they help. The district needs to be honest, completely transparent and explain what the game plan will be to overcome this situation – hiccups and all.

Everybody has to play their part.

You say you had unprecedented access but there is a reputation the District is closed off from the community. What’s your perspective on this?

I got a sense there’s a bunker mentality. They feel they have been beaten up. Frankly, they had a rough go lately but they also have not had community support. I never got the sense there was a dialog with the community and District 60.

What do you mean by dialog?

There is a large disconnect with the community. When you have one person show up to a superintendent’s public meeting, and only 30 people show up when the potential superintendents were being publicly interviewed — which was rare to have that process open — the community isn’t participating.

Do you see the district turning it around by 2015?

This is purely a numbers game now. Numbers say Pueblo schools are failing. Over the last four years you saw the district improving but this last round of TCAP scores does not bode well for them.

Describe to us the timeline. What exactly does that mean?
The timeline is very complicated. They will “enter year 5” in July 2015. If their scores in August 2015 don’t show improvement, the state board will strip their accreditation the following July (2016). But in between July 2015 and July 2016, the district and state will have to come to a compromise on how the district will get its accreditation back. If they come to an agreement and the district implements it before July 2016, they’ll likely only lose accreditation for a few minutes as paperwork is filed.

Part 1: As the state’s accountability clock ticks down, a district struggles to move forward
Part 2: Cascading middle school crises at center of Pueblo’s challenge
Part 3: Facing a leadership transition and a looming deadline, an uncertain future for Pueblo

Note: The question about the timeline was provided after this article appeared in our September 2014 print edition.

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More than just pie, the Pecan industry sets sights on snacks

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The humble pecan is being rebranded as more than just pie.

Pecan growers and suppliers are hoping to sell U.S. consumers on the virtues of North America’s only native nut as a hedge against a potential trade war with China, the pecan’s largest export market.

The pecan industry is also trying to crack the fast-growing snack-food industry.

The retail value for packaged nuts, seeds and trail mix in the U.S. alone was $5.7 billion in 2012, and is forecast to rise to $7.5 billion by 2022, according to market researcher Euromonitor.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based American Pecan Council, formed in the wake of a new federal marketing order that allows the industry to band together and assess fees for research and promotion, is a half-century in the making, said Jim Anthony, 80, the owner of a 14,000-acre pecan farm near Granbury, Texas.

Anthony said that regional rivalries and turf wars across the 15-state pecan belt — stretching from the Carolinas to California — made such a union impossible until recently, when demand for pecans exploded in Asian markets.

Until 2007, most U.S. pecans were consumed domestically, according to Daniel Zedan, president of Nature’s Finest Foods, a marketing group. By 2009, China was buying about a third of the U.S. crop.

The pecan is the only tree nut indigenous to North America, growers say. Sixteenth-century Spanish explore Cabeza de Vaca wrote about tasting the nut during his encounters with Native American tribes in South Texas. The name is French explorers’ phonetic spelling of the native word “pakan,” meaning hard-shelled nut.

Facing growing competition from pecan producers in South Africa, Mexico and Australia, U.S. producers are also riding the wave of the Trump Administration’s policies to promote American-made goods.

Most American kids grow up with peanut butter but peanuts probably originated in South America. Almonds are native to Asia and pistachios to the Middle East. The pecan council is funding academic research to show that their nuts are just as nutritious.

The council on Wednesday will debut a new logo: “American Pecans: The Original Supernut.”

Rodney Myers, who manages operations at Anthony’s pecan farm, credits the pecan’s growing cachet in China and elsewhere in Asia with its association to rustic Americana — “the oilfield, cowboys, the Wild West — they associate all these things with the North American nut,” he said.

China earlier this month released a list of American products that could face tariffs in retaliation for proposed U.S. tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. Fresh and dried nuts — including the pecan — could be slapped with a 15-percent tariff, according to the list. To counter that risk, the pecan council is using some of the $8 million in production-based assessments it’s collected since the marketing order was passed to promote the versatility of the tree nut beyond pecan pie at Thanksgiving.

While Chinese demand pushed up prices it also drove away American consumers. By January 2013, prices had dropped 50 percent from their peak in 2011, according to Zedan.

U.S. growers and processers were finally able in 2016 to pass a marketing order to better control pecan production and prices.

Authorized by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, federal marketing orders help producers and handlers standardize packaging, impose quality control and fund research, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees 28 other fruit, vegetable and specialty marketing orders, in addition to the pecan order.

Critics charge that the orders interfere with the price signals of a free, unfettered private market.

“What you’ve created instead is a government-sanctioned cartel,” said Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Before the almond industry passed its own federal marketing order in 1950, fewer almonds than pecans were sold, according to pecan council chair Mike Adams, who cultivates 600 acres of pecan trees near Caldwell, Texas. Now, while almonds appear in everything from cereal to milk substitutes, Adams calls the pecan “the forgotten nut.”

“We’re so excited to have an identity, to break out of the pie shell,” said Molly Willis, a member of the council who owns an 80-acre pecan farm in Albany, Georgia, a supplement to her husband’s family’s peanut-processing business.

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Navajo Nation marks 150th anniversary of return to homeland

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A long-lost original copy of a historic treaty signed in 1868 by leaders of one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes and the U.S. government will go on display later this year as the Navajo Nation commemorates a dark, but significant chapter of history.

Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez and other tribal officials gathered Tuesday in Albuquerque to detail some of the events that will mark the signing of the treaty 150 years ago.

That treaty is what cleared the way for tribal members to return to their homeland in the heart of the American Southwest after being rounded up years earlier by the U.S. cavalry and forced to make an arduous and deadly trek hundreds of miles to a camp in eastern New Mexico.

Nez recounted the hardships of what came to be known as the Long Walk, saying many Navajos died along the route to Bosque Redondo. He also talked about those who stayed behind and hid in canyons and on mesa tops, often foregoing the warmth of a fire to avoid capture.

“We want our younger generation to know about our history,” Nez told a room packed with tribal officials and reporters.

He also talked about problems facing tribal communities, from suicide to alcoholism, drug addiction and violence. He said he wants to tap into the resilience of those Navajo ancestors who endured the hardships of the 1800s.

“What this will do is inspire, encourage our people out there that they can’t give up, to jump back up, dust themselves off and to fight even harder than ever before for what they believe in,” Nez said.

Navajo President Russell Begaye has said this year’s commemoration is also about telling the story of the Long Walk, the signing of the treaty and the return home from the perspective of Native Americans. He and other tribal officials say one goal is to address what they called a “legacy of misrepresentation” that has stemmed from that era.

Before research and planning began for this year’s events, there were only two known copies of the historic treaty. The whereabouts of one is now a mystery and the other has been kept by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The third copy turned up only recently when the relatives of a peace commissioner who was involved in the negotiation and signing of the treaty in 1868 found the document in a trunk in the family attic.

It was rolled up and bound with the original but faded ribbon. It was in pristine condition along with notes and other documents that historians hope might fill in some of the blanks from that time.

Pages of that copy will be on display starting in June at the Bosque Redondo Memorial near Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

The National Archives is partnering with the Navajo Nation to display the other original copy at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, for the month of June.

It took more than two years of planning to make the exhibition possible as this marks only the second time an original treaty has gone back to a homeland.

Museum director Manny Wheeler said the treaty is more than just a document to the Navajo people.

“When I saw the document and I saw the marks of all of our leaders on that paper, it is a powerful thing and it is very much so opening up dialogue among all Navajos about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler suggested that as much as the document was key to the Navajos’ past, it also has the power to change the future by awaking tribal members to the importance of preserving their culture and language.

The leaders of the Navajo Nation’s three branches of government signed a proclamation earlier this year declaring 2018 as the year of the treaty, and the tribe launched a website .

The commemoration also includes a day of prayer across the Navajo Nation, cultural nights, tours of the tribal council chambers and a run that will span more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) from Fort Sumner to the Navajo capital.

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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