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New Mexico Public Education Commission Denies Application Of Proposed Los Alamos Charter School

on August 22, 2019 - 6:55pm
The Public Education Commission listens to statements from the board of the proposed Polaris Charter School today at the Public Education Building in Santa Fe. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/
Proposed Polaris Charter School board members await a decision of the PEC on their charter application. From left, Ken Holmes, Elizabeth Martineau, Bill Hargraves and Robert Gibson. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/
Los Alamos Daily Post

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Public Education Commission voted to deny the charter school application of Polaris School at a hearing this morning at the Public Education Building in Santa Fe. The Commission voted against approval on a 7-3 vote.

Four representatives of the proposed Los Alamos charter school, Bill Hargraves, Elizabeth Martineau, Ken Holmes and Robert Gibson answered questions and made the case for approval of the Polaris. The proposed school would serve grades 6 through 8.

They questioned the findings of a Department Of Education staff committee that recommended against the application and were able to show that, contrary to the committee report, which scored the application zero on its budget which they said was missing. Martineau gave the page number for the location of the budget material in the application.

In spite of the zero grade on the budget, the application received a score of 85, which Commission sources said was a very high score.

Although Los Alamos is perceived as “a Utopia of high-achieving students”, the reality is that the current school system and climate does not meet all students’ needs.

“You may not hear about our failures, about the 13 percent who do not graduate or our larger proportion of non-fatal suicide attempts,” Martineau said.

“Culture shift is difficult,” Hargraves agreed. “To change the culture of a school district would require years and years.”

A main concern of the commission was the lack of a location for the proposed school. Those speaking for Polaris said two buildings had been identified and the group was working with a realtor to secure one of them, but without a charter, it was hard to seal a deal.

Martineau stressed that after two years of work, the proposed charter school board was committed to the success of the project.

“We have the experience and expertise to succeed,” she said. “We can be a small incubator of change and innovation.”

The Polaris model relies on “place-based” or in community learning, which takes advantage of the surrounding environment and community to develop student projects. It focuses on creating a close-knit community of learners.

Some commissioners were displeased by the lack of diversity on the proposed school’s board. Since Los Alamos is a majority Anglo community, this has been difficult, Martineau said, but the board has added two Hispanic members and has done outreach in Espanola and the surrounding Pueblos.

Some members of the commission seemed surprised to learn that the Los Alamos student population is growing, not shrinking and that Los Alamos is not currently accepting new out-of-district students because of this.

Since out-of-district students would not be able to attend Los Alamos High School, some commissioners worried that students would be uprooted from their friends and placed in an unfamiliar environment after graduating from Polaris.

“Our goal is to prepare kids to be successful after they leave 8th grade, so they can succeed at any school,” Hargraves countered.

The difficulty of attracting grant money to an affluent community like Los Alamos was a worry for the Commission, and the proposed charter board members acknowledged this, but said they continue to try and to send out applications.

Commissioner Karyl Ann Armbruster of Los Alamos said lack of school choice was a problem in Los Alamos, which has neither charters nor private schools above the early elementary level. Middle income students, as well as poor students should have educational choices, she said.

After the public statements, the Commission went into closed session. The first vote, on approving the charter contingent on finding a building, was voted down 4 to 6. The vote denying the charter ensued.

“We’re disappointed,” Hargraves said, speaking for the Polaris Board. “I’m really proud of the whole team and of our application.”

The Polaris Board now faces the choice of appealing the ruling of the Commission to the Secretary of Public Education; applying again next year, presumably with a building, more funding options and a more diverse board and outreach or abandoning the project.

“Personally, I’d like to appeal to the Secretary, but we decide things by consensus,” Hargraves said. “We’ll get together and talk about where to go from here.”

Los Alamos Public Schools Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus issued a statement Thursday afternoon on the PEC decision.

“In light of the PEC decision, leadership at Los Alamos Public Schools plans to schedule a meeting with the charter school planning team to discuss how to best work together to pool local resources and help all students in Los Alamos succeed,” Steinhaus said. “We appreciate the team’s creative thinking and dedication to designing options for our middle school students in Los Alamos.”