Education chief: New Mexico schools need modern solutions

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is seeing higher graduation rates and more students are reading at grade level thanks to reforms made over the past several years, but a top state education official says the demands of public education are evolving and schools need to be prepared.

Christopher Ruszkowski took over as acting secretary of the Public Education Department this week. He replaces Hanna Skandera, who announced her resignation earlier this month.

A former middle school social studies teacher, Ruszkowski worked for several years with the Delaware Department of Education before being named in 2016 as a deputy secretary for policy and programs in New Mexico.

He helped develop New Mexico’s plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, a law signed by former President Barack Obama that addresses school ratings, student report cards and other ways to spot and help troubled schools.

Ruszkowski, 36, said in an interview that one of his major priorities will be reforming and improving teacher preparation to ensure students are learning in a way that will allow them to complete in a more modern, global economy.

“I think there’s some recognition that we can’t cling to the 20th-century realities because our kids aren’t living there, which means that our profession can’t live there anymore either,” he said. “We can’t keep applying 20th-century thinking to solve 21st-century problems.”

Aside from instituting a new report card system for the higher education programs that train New Mexico’s teachers, Ruszkowski will be looking at school districts around the state for ideas.

He says celebrating the successes of those bright spots and sharing their methods with other schools can eventually have a cumulative effect on the state’s education system, which historically has ranked near the bottom nationally.

While the results from this year’s round of standardized tests have yet to be released, state officials pointed to strides being made by the Farmington, Gallup and Gadsden districts.

“These are places that are beating the odds,” Ruszkowski said.

The son of a Polish immigrant, Ruszkowski said his father and uncles came to the U.S. hoping for a better life, settling in Chicago and thinking that the public school system would be their salvation from poverty.

“It’s personal,” he said. “I think about the promise of the American dream and the role that our public schools are supposed to play in that process in creating an equal education for all kids.”

Ruszkowski pointed to successes with schools in Denver, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., saying New Mexico is on its way as well now that it has what he called honest data on how its schools, teachers and students are performing. The next phase, he said, is continued public pressure on elected leaders to sustain investments in programs showing results.