Whittier Elementary School in southeast Albuquerque is making a comeback. In 2017, the state Public Education Department designated it as among the worst of the “failing” schools. Albuquerque Public Schools came up with a plan to turn things around at Whittier, including increased staffing and afternoon extracurricular time called Genius Hour. KUNM visited a Genius Hour recently when the drama club presented its play.
It was Daniel Herrera’s first ever performance, and he was a bit nervous. The show is from Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Herrera has a small but important speaking role as the builder who accidentally built the school sideways, like a skyscraper.
"It was only supposed to be one story high with 30 classrooms," explained Herrera. "Instead, it’s thirty stories high with one classroom in each story."
After the play, Chris Gallegos said he likes that the school day now ends at 4:00 p.m. instead of 2:30 p.m. This way his twin fourth grade girls can do most of their homework before they come home.
"You know, going home, trying to make dinner, getting the kids all situated with their homeworks and having to answer questions from three of them," Gallegos recounted a typical evening from last year. "So [the longer day] has been a lot helpful on my part, as far as a parent. They get to do their homework at school, and when they have questions, the teacher’s right there."
Kim Finke is the new principal at Whittier. She said the longer day and longer year have translated into about a $12,000 bump in pay for teachers.
Finke has done school turnarounds before, including at Corrales Elementary, but she said she's never had the amount of extra money that this state-required plan has brought in.
"Just being able to have extra personnel, extra time with my staff," said Finke. "We have professional development every single morning, so we get to sit down and talk about our issues and actually collaborate and work on them."
She said in just the first half of the school year, the number of students scoring on grade level in math went up by 15 percent.
She resisted pressure from the state to get rid of teachers in the turnaround process, Finke said. Instead, she’s trying to make sure everyone at Whittier has the knowledge and support they need to do their jobs well.
"There’s been a lot of teacher-blaming I feel, across the state," said Finke. "And that’s not what it is. It’s about having correct systems. I believe that our job in administration is to provide fertile ground to help people be successful."
The plan is for Finke to stay at Whittier for three years, and when she leaves, the changes are meant to stick.
Last week, the Public Education Department announced it upgraded Whittier and three other elementary schools from the bottom-tier designation.
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