MAKING THE GRADE: A number of New Mexico schools from communities where household income is below the state median scored highly in rankings compiled by the website Niche.com.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
An annual ranking of the top public schools across the country just came out and in New Mexico, schools from poorer districts are holding their own.
While schools in some of the most affluent areas of the state finished high, a sizable number of schools from more modest communities finished in the upper echelon in the rankings compiled by Niche.com.
For example, the town of Texico finished with the third-best rating for public middle schools, sixth-best in public high schools and No. 15 among all the public elementary schools in the state.
“It’s always great to see those numbers,” said Texico Municipal Schools Superintendent Miles Mitchell, who wasn’t aware of the rankings until New Mexico Watchdog informed him. “I’m happy to see some of the programs we use coming out in the data.”
New Mexico Watchdog took the Niche.com ratings a step further, linking the top-performing schools to the median household income numbers in the cities where the schools were located.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in New Mexico between 2008-2012 was $48,886. The median household income in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, is just under the state median of $47,399.
Even if you toss out Albuquerque, seven of the state’s top 18 schools in Niche.com’s high school rankings had household income numbers below the state’s median.
High schools in Texico, Cimarron, Clayton and Socorro each finished in the top 16 despite having median household income below $35,000 a year:
The middle school rankings were similar, with six schools in communities where the median household income was below $40,000 finishing in the top 20 despite being located in communities (not counting Albuquerque) below the state median for household income:
In the top 20 rankings for New Mexico public elementary schools, each of the top five spots came from the Los Alamos-White Rock area, home to many scientists and employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the median household income exceeds a whopping $100,000.
The next seven places are comprised of elementary schools in Rio Rancho, a bedroom community outside Albuquerque where median household income surpasses the state median by more than $11,000.
But Texico, Clayton and Capitan occupy three of the next six spots:
What are schools like Texico doing right?
“We have to adapt to the challenges” that come from teaching in less affluent areas, Mitchell said in a telephone interview.
Specifically, Mitchell pointed to a series of programs Texico Municipal Schools have adopted, including an effort to keep student-to-teacher ratios low. “We have a lot of one-on-one interaction,” he said.
Also, Mitchell estimated about 70 percent of Texico High School students take part in extracurricular activities — not just participating in sports, but also enrolling students in vocational classes — with the idea that an engaged student is more likely to become a successful student.
“We’re not in an area where there’s a lot to do,” said Mitchell, who grew up in small town Melrose, N.M. “We’re not in Albuquerque. There’s no Cliff’s amusement park or a lot of activities for kids in this area outside of school. So we try to keep to that as a focus … It’s a priority the district set a long time ago and we use that as a driving force to keep high expectations for academics.”
Two months ago, Texico High School received a National Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education for being an “exemplary, high-performing school.” The only two other New Mexico schools to receive the awards were also from areas below the median household income levels in the state — Berrendo Middle School in Roswell and Dora Elementary School in rural Roosevelt County.
“I think kids have a chance to be successful no matter where they’re at,” Mitchell said. “Smaller schools in smaller communities are sometimes pushed a little harder.”
Launched in May 2013, Niche.com advertises its rankings as results-oriented and looks at academics and student-teacher ratios in measuring elementary schools, and weighs eight factors — such as academic performance, diversity and teachers’ grades — when evaluating high schools.
Niche.com also looks at the number of students going on to college and the quality of those colleges.
Click here for more information on the methodology used by Niche.com.