Change Is a Constant at Cochiti

by Pamela Porter
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIII, Number 1, April 2001, Changes and Challenges for Rural Schools
  celebrating Evie's birthday

As 8-year-old Evie, an American Indian student at Cochiti Elementary and Middle School, works on a spelling lesson of her own choosing, her dark eyes widen and a smile springs to her lips when her mother and older sister enter the room. Today her classmates celebrate the day of Evie's birth, Montessori-style.

The girl runs small circles around a sun with the globe in her hand while her mother tells the K-2 students events from each year of Evie's life until the she has made eight rotations. The class cheers her final journey and bursts into three rounds of "Happy Birthday"—in English, Spanish, and Japanese. A boy wants to sing the song in his native Keres, as well, but doesn't know all the words. He is, however, learning the language of his people, the Cochiti Indians, who have lived and worked in the fertile Rio Grande Valley southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for many generations.

After tribal leaders expressed their fear that the oral language of Keres was in danger of being lost, Bernalillo Public Schools (BPS) Superintendent Gary Dwyer initiated a program four years ago that connects American Indians with their heritage: Indian pueblos served by BPS now select members to teach Keres and Cochiti customs and history to tribal children as a regular part of the curriculum. All other students at Cochiti Elementary and Middle School learn Spanish.

map of Cochiti  

With an ethnic mix of 52 percent American Indian and 47 percent Hispanic among its 230 students, Cochiti is one of several rural schools in the Bernalillo district that encompasses 648 square miles on the fringes of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

"We're trying to make it easy for people to talk to us," Dwyer says, explaining that as part of an outreach program, he annually schedules at least two community meetings in each of the moderate-to-small-size villages within the district. He also welcomes recommendations from parent-teacher organizations and governance councils. The councils are made up of teachers, parents, and students and study the needs of their schools. Although Dwyer has noticed a gradual increase in community input during the four and a half years he has served as superintendent, "You still don't get a lot of participation," he acknowledges.

The isolation of these small rural BPS schools is a factor with advantages and drawbacks, which the superintendent has addressed in a number of creative ways. On the plus side, "Everyone knows everyone else, so it feels like a real community. People tend to take care of each other," he says.

Like many other superintendents of rural school districts, Dwyer notes, "The lack of proximity to urban areas means trouble finding and retaining teachers." And since the district shares certain teachers and resources, the distance between schools means long travel times that eat into the day. As he tries to address what he feels is a lack of fine arts development in the district, he has struggled to fill music and art teaching positions. "The arts are very important; in my mind they cement the learning process," says the superintendent, who has also initiated aggressive districtwide reading and math programs.

  first grade student with principal

A first-grade student shares a book he has written with principal June Reed.

There is also the issue of the small size itself, particularly at the middle school level, Dwyer points out. With so few students, it's difficult to provide much selection in the way of electives for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Special freshmen orientations, he says, help with the transition to Bernalillo High School, but with the high school boasting a thousand students, the experience can still be overwhelming for these teens.

Cochiti has been addressing these concerns while striving to improve student achievement in ongoing reform efforts for several years, and like all New Mexico schools, has been affected by the state-mandated accountability and assessment programs recently implemented.

Under the new system, all students are tested annually to determine their grasp of certain skills, and schools are ranked according to student performance. It is hoped these measures will identify schools and students in need of help, according to the scores from the state's standardized TerraNova tests. Of course, curriculum also needs to be aligned with revised state standards, and students must become accustomed to taking tests in order for them to perform well on the assessments.

Cochiti principal June Reed was new to the district and school in the 2000-2001 school year, but not to the job. She says when the opportunity to head the elementary and middle school became available, she jumped at the chance and out of retirement from New Mexico's Four Corners area.

When she arrived at the school, she was at first struck by the beauty of its location, where cedar and pi–on trees are sprinkled among dusty hills that drop to the cottonwood forests and farms along the Rio Grande, then climb to distant blue mountain ranges in every direction. Reed was also impressed by the dedication of the staff members, many of whom were already preparing for the following school year when she came on board in July.

"Teachers have a real commitment to these students," the principal says with genuine appreciation. "This is a very student-centered environment." Perhaps that is one reason these educators have been willing to try a number of approaches to help Cochiti's high-minority and high- poverty population succeed.

Each of the K-2 teachers use the Montessori method, which enables students to choose their own activities and learn at individual paces. Pupils are engaged with each other and their work in Ann Villela's classroom, where they listen intently to a "book" written by one boy, visit with one of the class guinea pigs, then rush to select a project from rows of cubbyholes and set about their "hard work," all in a time frame that fits their attention spans.

Picture of a boy with a book  

The book this first-grader is showing his class is one he wrote himself.


The Montessori philosophy is somewhat carried over into the higher grades, Reed points out, as the school operates with multi-age classrooms and focuses on thematic units and hands-on learning. Also, older children mentor their younger schoolmates in the "Reading Buddies" program and become role models for them. An involved counselor, who is from the area, and small student-teacher ratios (16 teachers and 11 aides) add to the feeling of community at the school.

Math students in Richard Bonnem's 5th-6th grade class sit in clusters and work on problems individually, in small groups, or on the computer. Bonnem likes the multi-age approach, saying, "You see a lot of cooperation among the students. Plus, when I have students for two years, I am able to get to know them and what works best for them." He says he is contacted by parents about twice a week, and they are concerned about their children's education.

But even with the caring staff, supportive parents, and innovative programs in place, students were not doing well on standardized tests, so in 1998, teachers agreed to work with the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) to improve student learning and achievement. "The focus of the project was to form a partnership with the school for comprehensive change," explains SEDL program specialist Tara Leo. A staff member with SEDL's Strategies for Increasing School Success program at the time, Leo says,. "This was not a model, but a true partnership. Those of us from SEDL worked as facilitators only—the real drive came from the teachers."

During the first year, Leo says, the Cochiti staff spent time reflecting on a variety of issues and concerns. Many teachers were concerned that students were not retaining information taught in class. They also disclosed they were uncomfortable with the curriculum. It was agreed the staff would first focus their efforts in the area of math, which, participating teachers and consultants believed, lacked coherence between grade levels.

The following year, SEDL staff and Cochiti teachers studied the curriculum and developed an ambitious schoolwide plan that included building coherence, increasing teacher knowledge in math, and implementing pre- and post-assessments that reveal what students need to learn and how well they did learn the material. Staff members from another SEDL program, the Eisenhower Southwest Consortium for the Improvement of Math and Science Teaching (SCIMAST), worked with the Cochiti faculty to align the school's curriculum with the state's TerraNova tests and helped teachers incorporate new district-mandated math materials.

  Working with student

Cochiti's Montessori K-2 classes offer students a variety of hands-on learning experiences.

June Reed speaks for many of her staff members when she says, "Tests do not measure what our kids know; they measure how well students take tests." She explains Cochiti relies on multiple evaluations, such as required portfolio presentations that measure student performance, which enable the staff to view the whole child. But with the emphasis on assessment and accountability, she plans to advocate teaching test-taking techniques to help reduce student apprehension.

Change—never easy or painless—seems to have become the norm at Cochiti Elementary and Middle School, and the new principal is gratified the teachers and instructional assistants continue to work together for reform, especially since they have many demands on their time.

Her vision for the school? "I see this school as having the potential for every child to achieve at his or her highest ability and to have the staff satisfied with their work. That is so important. In fact, my goal is for Cochiti to be recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School in five years," she says, with absolutely no doubt that she and her dedicated colleagues can make it happen.

>> Cochiti's Focus on Math Is Rewarded With Improved Scores

"I was skeptical at first," admits Richard Bonnem, the 5th-6th grade math teacher at Cochiti Elementary and Middle School, as he reflects on the two-year process aimed at boosting student mathematics skills. "But now I'm seeing a focus where there was none. And there has also been an improvement in performance."

 As a mathematician, Bonnem appreciates that latest figures indicate the methods developed and implemented from 1998-2000 at the rural school have made a difference for its culturally diverse students. This improvement translates to the consistently higher test scores in math for the 3rd-4th and 5th-6th grade students whose teachers participated in SEDL's Strategies for Increasing Student Success program. And he has observed a different attitude toward math as well: his students don't seem to be intimidated by it. Cochiti principal June Reed enthusiastically produces a chart with data from the 1998-2000 New Mexico Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS/TerraNova Survey Plus) that shows substantial increases for most students in math, math computation, and math composite scores. She is visibly excited as her finger runs down the columns, pointing out hikes of more than 10 Normal Curve Equivalents for 4th-6th graders. "The rise in math computation for fifth grade was 15.9 and 14.3 for sixth graders," she proudly exclaims. "I'd say SEDL has been a good partner."

"The goal was to have the staff teach for understanding in math," explains Tara Leo, the SEDL program specialist who served as the SISS liaison for Cochiti. The implementation of pre- and post-assessments has been one strategy teachers have found particularly helpful, she says. Teachers are able to tailor their instruction to meet individual needs and then determine student retention. In order to obtain student perspective, teachers also interview three from the class—a high, an average, and a low performer. That insight has been invaluable, they report.

For two years Cochiti teachers worked with SEDL's Eisenhower Science and Math Consortium on yet another challenge—to switch gears and follow the Bernalillo Public Schools directive to teach the same math program throughout the district.

"Teachers have been appreciative. They say they appreciate the support and opportunity to learn to work together and grow professionally," says Como Molina of the Science and Math Consortium. He sees a need for more vertical alignment in the process—to locate gaps in teaching or redundancy. "It's just a matter of getting teachers on the same page, but that's the case for almost any school. It's a very good staff."

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