Tell us about the origin story for Excellent Schools New Mexico (ESNM) and why you're working state-wide?
Excellent Schools New Mexico was born from the need to provide more quality school options to New Mexico students and families. We launched through a collaborative effort between education leaders and local business, and are backed by a multi-year grant from the Daniels Fund, which has supported New Mexico causes for nearly 30 years.
I was hired by our founding board in 2016 and relocated to New Mexico with my better half, Meaghan, a native-born New Mexican (and the co-founder of a charter school that will open in Albuquerque in 2018!).
Although we are open to state-wide work, in large part to achieve greater scale, we have concentrated our work thus far in two of our biggest population centers: Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
How did you come to this work? Was there anything you experienced growing up or in your past professional life that inspired you to lead ESNM?
Like many of my colleagues in this work, I come from a long line of public school educators, none of whom have been more influential than my mother, who was an award-winning special education teacher, principal and district administrator for 30 years. My mother's work strengthened my belief in the power of our public school system to create opportunity and underscored the need to have smart, passionate folks invested in this system.
That said, I also came to this work - and care so deeply about it - thanks to the convictions I developed while playing sports. I played baseball at both the collegiate and professional levels, and while I wasn't at all good as a professional, I always felt that I had access to the same coaching and tools, and a fair and equitable shot at making the Major Leagues. When I started working in schools, I realized quickly how fleeting a fair shot is for far too many kids, and that their access to opportunity correlated to circumstances beyond their control like where they lived or what they looked like. This reality fired me up then and continues to drive my work to this day.
What about this work, so far, has either surprised you or encouraged you the most?
At the risk of sounding naïve, my first 18 months have been an eye-opening lesson in the machinations of state- and local-level politics. Having previously worked in both schools and an industry that relied heavily on government support (renewable energy), I thought that I understood how education politics functioned, but I am learning quickly that politics and policy play an outsized role in how students are educated. As I recently joked with a colleague of mine, I spent my summer reading Robert Caro's biographical series on Lyndon Johnson in an attempt to improve my political acumen. (Great set of books, by the way!)
Through my experiences thus far, I have been most encouraged by conversations with folks who want what I want, but have opposing ideas about how to get there. These conversations - especially when they've focused on how educators, parents and communities define school quality - have forced me to identify my blind spots and improve how I lead in a place I value and intend to stay for the long haul.
Although your work is state-wide what value have you found being part of a network of city-based organizations and what do you think city-based members can learn from education quarterbacks like your organization?
To echo what Ed Chang at redefinED atlanta said in a previous Q&A, having the opportunity to engage with and learn from similar organizations during the early stages of my work contributed considerably to my learning and organizational planning. Nearly all of the fundamental strategies employed by city-based organizations to catalyze quality school growth apply to my work, so I have been able to steal ideas from generous colleagues. What I've enjoyed about state-wide work is that it has forced me to get outside of Albuquerque and engage with folks from all corners of the state. From a policy perspective, I have been surprised by the number of rural / suburban legislators and officials who have interest in - and great influence over - what takes place in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
In addition, several of my most valued partners live in places like Roswell, Gallup and Española, where system-level reform work has not been as concentrated, and folks' thoughts on paths forward haven't been clouded by what they've seen and experienced during the past decade of school reform.
What do you want folks to know about your strategy and some of the education ecosystem challenges the state faces to increase the number of high-quality school options?
Unlike many other member cities and states, New Mexico does not yet have a strong tradition of coordinated, K-12 systems-level funding. As a result, we have been - at least in our first 18 months - more tightly focused on concrete seat creation as demand for new seats is high. The strategy we've employed to create these seats has largely been driven by the feedback from the "brains" of our operation, our local school leaders who deeply understand the context of New Mexico K-12 education and the needs of their students and families. As part of this strategy, we have engaged several national nonprofit organizations - nearly all of whom have never worked in New Mexico - to strategize with, fund and coach our schools as they grow. Finally, to catalyze the development of our broader ecosystem strategy, we have organized visits to other cities and regions to show local folks what is possible and to discuss what may work in New Mexico.
The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded the New Mexico Public Education Department $22.5 million to create and replicate high-quality charter schools. From your understanding, why did the state go after this funding and what does this mean for your work?
We have close to 100 charter schools in New Mexico, and nearly all are single-site schools. However, demand for our top-performing charters is very strong. In some cases, charter schools receive 30 applications for every 1 open spot, and individual charter school waitlists are often 3-5x oversubscribed. The New Mexico Public Education Department views this grant as an opportunity to nudge several of these high-performing, high-demand single-site schools to replicate, which will boost the overall quality of our charter sector and improve student academic outcomes. Additionally, we expect that our grant dollars will attract new quality operators to our state, and because the grant spans five years, we hope that these dollars will allow the work of quality charter development to span gubernatorial administrations. ESNM is focused on developing a strong pipeline of schools to access these dollars, and we are optimistic that our grantee schools will be successful in obtaining grant awards, potentially as soon as December 2017.
Millions in funding aside, are there other recent wins or signs of progress you'd like to mention?
Most importantly, student outcomes in New Mexico have improved over the last 2-3 years. Our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. Our flagship university's graduation rate is at an all-time high. More of our K-12 students, especially those in traditionally underserved communities, are attending higher-performing schools. And our statewide ESSA plan, which provides the blueprint to continue this work, has been hailed as one of the 2-3 best plans in the country.
Within the ecosystem we are helping to grow, the first two charter schools that we have backed were both approved unanimously by our state authorizer and will open in August 2018. We have built a larger pipeline of new and replicating schools, all of whom are receiving support from national organizations such as Building Excellent Schools and NewSchools Venture Fund, and many of whom will be great candidates for our federal grant dollars. Finally, to strengthen our policy work, we have supported the launch of a local Teach Plus affiliate and a soon-to-be launched local 50CAN affiliate. It's all new, young work, and we have a long way to travel, but first steps have been promising.
When friends or family visit you in Albuquerque what are a couple of your go-to activities?
It's sunny and mild here year-round, so first and foremost, we spend plenty of time outside. We enjoy biking along the Rio Grande, taking folks hiking in the Petroglyphs...really, anything to get outdoors and into the beautiful landscape that frames the city. We also make sure that folks are well-fed, and we've yet to have friends or family leave Albuquerque hungry - green chile chicken enchiladas, chile rellenos, sopapillas...and maybe a margarita or two as well.