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Farmington schools face uphill battle to improve student performance

Farmington Municipal Schools students learn about weights and measures in this photo from 2018. (Courtesy Farmington Municipal Schools)
Twelve teaching positions need to be filled

Despite the academic performance and staffing issues facing Farmington Municipal Schools, top administrators remain optimistic about turning things around.

In September, Nate Pierantoni, director of support services for FMS, released results from the spring 2022 State Summative Assessment tests for math and English for grades 3-8.

Overall, 31% of students in grades 3-8 were proficient or advanced in English assessments, and 25% were proficient or advanced in math. Because of the pandemic, no comparative assessments were conducted in 2020 and 2021. Transition assessments in 2019, which test for different aspects, showed 42% of students were proficient in reading, and 24% in math.

The New Mexico Public Education Department considers the scores to be the new benchmark for improvement efforts, Pierantoni stated in his school board report on Sept. 13.

“It is a concern across the nation,” said Lambson. “Coming back from the pandemic has not been the easiest; however, what also is a part of that story is our kiddos took a brand new test last year. ... So this is not as concerning as many people might think. Because now this is an opportunity for us to continue to grow upon this new baseline.”

“We’re already seeing some early positive gains, particularly on K-2 early literacy,” Lambson said.

She emphasized that they are a “collaborative community” that shares resources and strategies; for example, Diehl works closely with other administrators around the county to enhance the region’s education.

Pash emphasized that the school district was better prepared than others for the COVID-19 pandemic because it had a one-on-one computer initiative that started in 2006.

“So when COVID came our kids already had a computer. ... The switch to remote learning was pretty seamless,” he said.

Cody Diehl, superintendent at Farmington Municipal Schools (Farmington Municipal Schools)
Chris Pash, human resources director at Farmington Municipal Schools
Nicole Lambson, executive director of curriculum at Farmington Municipal Schools
State tests determine performance levels

Students in kindergarten through grade 5 take the IStation test, which assesses early literacy skills, and students in grades 3-8 take interim assessments specific to math and English.

“We have a guaranteed curriculum to make all students learn the critical content,” Lambson said.

She said iMSSA interims have been state mandated for the past two years, but FMS has used interim assessments for the past seven years. Grades 3-8 take interim assessments specific to math and ELA. Interims are three times a year, and benchmark summative assessments are given for grades 3-8 in math and ELA. MSSA is the end-of-year state test given in April, along with a science test for all fifth, eighth and 11th graders.

Lambson also noted that the new state test included “culturally relevant” terminology that students might not have seen in previous tests.

About the administrators

Superintendent Cody Diehl

First-year Superintendent Cody Diehl served as director of support services for Farmington schools and was a high school principal for 14 years at Bloomfield and Kirtland high schools. His classroom experience began as a math teacher, and he coached baseball and basketball.

Human Resources Director Chris Pash

Chris Pash began his education career as a math teacher, then was athletic director at Farmington High School. He was director of secondary curriculum and instruction, before assuming his current role for eight years.

“It’s going well – this will be my 20th year with Farmington Municipal Schools,” he said.

Curriculum Executive Director Nicole Lambson

Nicole Lambson transitioned into education with the alternative licensure program after attaining a business marketing degree, and taught eighth grade English and social studies before her five years in curriculum.

“So I am a proud Farmington High graduate, born and raised here, so I was a product of the system,” she said.

“So we’re better preparing them for the vocabulary and language they may see along with the story interactions,” she said. “I don’t want to say that they weren’t prepared, but it was probably a different format than what they were used to in the past.”

Benchmarks refer to a performance baseline. The district creates district goals from those baselines to improve reading and math performance for the next five years. Each school has its summative and benchmark goals, and teachers check on students “throughout their days and weeks, through their own assessments,” she said.

The state of New Mexico adopted multi-layered support systems for instructional, behavioral, attendance, and health and wellness to understand the scope of student needs and to create plans to individualize them for improving in specific areas, according to Lambson.

District high schools don’t have summative data; instead, they take the optional 11th grade SAT and are evaluated for graduation based on course completion and pass rates, based on a graduate profile for these skills.

“There’s an effort to promote a better understanding of course basics, as well as preparing them for college career readiness and life outside – careers, trades, things like that,” Lambson said.

Farmington beekeeper Anna McMullen makes a presentation to Apache Elementary students about honeybees in October. The students were learning from “Polly the Honeybee's Flower Tour.” (Courtesy Farmington Municipal Schools)
Marine Sgt Brendan Johnson talks about visiting different countries while serving the United States during Career Day at McKinley Elementary in May. (Courtesy of Farmington Municipal Schools)
What about parental involvement?

New Mexico Vistas, Measures, Points and Indicators was designed to be a hub for community members and families to see how a district is performing. However, data collection has been inconsistent.

“We got a call last week that they’re still trying to upload the past two years’ data...for us to actually see trends and patterns,” Lambson said.

It is “a transparent platform where families, communities and organizations can see how districts, schools and the state are performing in relation to our state test – it also includes attendance,” Lambson said.

“I think the students during this decade probably have some of the best assets at their disposal to make informed decisions if they use that power for good,” Lambson said.

“Our whole goal as a district is to be more inquiry-based and be thinking of knowledge application,” she said. “How do I make it relevant for my life’s career or college pathway, so that I know how to leverage it, not just in the immediate.”

Lambson said her toughest challenge recently came during the pandemic.

“But working collaboratively with other great teams we overcome some of these challenges and barriers and we really find some great solutions ... to help benefit the overall good of kids.”

The district website states that Farmington Municipal Schools is ranked No. 1 out of 93 districts as the “most diverse” in the state. It is ranked No. 14 as "best district,“ No. 18 for athletes, No. 24 for “best teachers” and No. 29 for “best place to teach.”

In March 2022, the New Mexico Department of Education highlighted Farmington Municipal Schools as one of the districts that continued an upward trend in graduation rates, despite two years of the pandemic. And since 2010, four-year graduation rates have risen by 15%, according to Roberto Toboada, FMS public information officer.

Despite the challenges, Lambson and Diehl remained optimistic.

"When you’re an educator, every day is a challenge with the ultimate goal of creating a system in which teachers are supported and student outcomes are – that they are growing and learning,“ Diehl said. ”The reward is when you walk into a school and you see kids smiling and happy.”

Diehl said his overall outlook is “one of optimism ... and trying to return to some sense of normalcy this year. But we certainly have a lot of room to improve.“