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

Esparta Palma | Flickr
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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Written by John Rodriguez

Publisher of PULP.

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