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Alma d’Arte charter school again under scrutiny


During spring break, Alma d’Arte Charter High School principal Adam Amador worked through the week assembling documents addressing a number of financial and academic concerns raised by the New Mexico Public Education Commission.

Amador is the new principal at Alma, a public charter school dedicated to arts integration founded in 2004 and based at the historic Court Junior High School on Court Avenue.

At its February 16 session, the 10-member elected body — which authorizes and oversees state-chartered charter schools in New Mexico — discussed concerns raised by parents and faculty of the arts-based public charter school founded in Las Cruces in 2004, as well as the school’s financial audit and annual report from the state’s Charter Schools Division.

PEC staff have encouraged Alma to develop a grievance process in order to handle complaints that have been coming to the PEC from the school’s community. At the meeting, held in Santa Fe, staff also addressed a number of concerns with which they had been addressing directly with Amador, who started on the job last July.

Charter Schools Division Director Corina Chavez told the commissioners the agency was concerned about the governing board’s compliance with the Open Meetings Act, noting that the school’s website — where notices of public meetings, agendas and contacts for the school’s governing council — was down for an extended period of time in recent months. A revamped and updated web site is currently live.

Additionally, the CSD was troubled by complaints of students being expelled from the school without process; that the school was placed on a corrective action plan by the Public Education Department’s Office of Special Education; and that its annual report identified gaps in performance in numerous areas.

The commissioners voted to notify the school it would be placed on the agenda of a future meeting to report on its academic performance, special education compliance, enrollment and disenrollment processes, as well as organizational matters such as reporting requirements, use of grant funds, grievance policies and how it will address audit findings. Meanwhile, the CSD would continue its own process of finalizing the annual report and addressing its concerns, Chavez explained.

In 2021, Alma d’Arte’s charter was renewed through 2027 with conditions, as the agency worked with the school on a list of issues related to governance, finances, enrollment and services for students with special needs.

This followed a tumultuous few years in which a former principal was indicted for embezzlement and the school came a procedural step away from possibly losing its charter under the PEC’s “intervention ladder,” when a notice of breach of its charter was issued in 2019. The notice addressed problems in the school’s special education services and services for English language learners among other items, as both the principal’s office and governing board saw rapid turnover.

Chair Patricia Gipson, who represents PEC District 7 and lives in Las Cruces, suggested the notice was an effort to assure the school was on track, saying, “I think we’re trying to be proactive here and (give) the school the opportunity to hopefully clear up a lot of these things and then take a look at those areas that may still need further review and feedback from the school.”

Although initially the PEC wanted Amador to report to the body at its March meeting, it has been pushed back to April, Amador said during an interview.

A major problem for the school, he said, was that a good deal of special education documentation for time prior to his arrival was simply missing: “When I got here, this office was empty. I mean no documents, no nothing. We’re starting from zero.”

Amador acknowledged that he arrived following a school year he described as “a wash,” with no improvement in proficiency or growth, plus low and inconsistent attendance among the school’s 130 students — conditions he’s been struggling to turn around rapidly to get the school into compliance with its charter. He has also contended with drugs on campus and bullying. Besides empty drawers in the special education office, he said some of the policy documents and handbooks that did exist were out of date.

“It’s an art integration school, but the arts doesn’t keep the school open, the academic side of the house does,” he said, while maintaining the school was committed to maintaining music, performance and fine arts at the core of its academic instruction, with visiting artists being brought in to work with students and investments in its culinary program.

A project underway on campus is the development of working studios and a gallery he suggested could be not only an exhibition space for students’ work but an opportunity to practice management and professional art curation skills.

Amador has been the target of complaints at governing board meetings as well as to the PEC about expulsions and firings and heavy-handed policy shifts, but Amador told the Bulletin his actions have been devoted to bringing the school into compliance with its charter as well as the corrective action plan with the special education office, while getting students as motivated about academics as about arts.

He said he looked forward to apprising the PEC of the supports the school has put in place — saying he would show documentation of art integration, use of grants, and progress on the school’s corrective action plans — and he said he welcomed accountability, if it comes with prospective solutions.

Patting a copy of the school’s charter and correspondence with PEC, Amador said, “This is what closes a school, right here.” While chances were the school might end up on the intervention ladder again, he said, “This is accountability, and I’m not fighting it. … The best I can do is move forward, as positive as I can.”

Alma d'Arte, charter school, Principal Adam Amador, under scrutiny