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N.M.’s top education official visits schools; Skandera talks to students, teachers, administrators

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New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera wants to see as many of the state’s schools in person as possible, and on Wednesday she paid a visit to Raton.

“I’ve never been to Raton,” Skandera said. “I’m a big fan of seeing schools, visiting folks and getting outside of the Albuquerque-Santa Fe circle, seeing the rest of our kids.”

Skandera briefly toured some of the Raton schools and visited with Raton schools Superintendent Dave Willden about some of the district’s programs. Skandera said her visit wasn’t about discussing state policies but rather about learning what is happening in school districts, what their needs are and what the state can do to help.

“It was nice and appreciated,” Willden said regarding the visit. “I’m glad she was here and saw some good things happening here. Hopefully, she can help us move things forward.”

While visiting students at Kearny and Longfellow elementary schools, Skandera — who described visiting schools as “my favorite part of the job” — said she could tell that the teachers were focused on the students and have them “headed in the right direction.”

“It was all (about) the kids,” she said. “Each one of those kids was proud and willing to learn, and that’s a sign of a good teacher.”

The Raton visit not only allowed Skandera to talk to students, teachers, and staff, but to learn about the district’s desire to build a consolidated elementary school. While touring the schools, Willden filled Skandera in on some of the building issues with Kearny and Longfellow, at which district maintenance staff have implemented some short-term measures in hopes a new school building will eventually be achieved.

The district put a bond issue before voters in 2008 but it failed to pass. Willden has since steered the district’s efforts toward a lease-purchase arrangement, in which the district would use its operational savings — from the closure of the existing three elementary schools — to pay for its share of a new consolidated elementary school, but the district has been unable to get backing from the Public Schools Facilities Authority.

During Skandera’s visit, Willden explained that the district could save about $500,000 per year by consolidating the schools. Skandera told The Range that seeing the schools firsthand helped her understand the situation and that “anyway I can, I’d like to help” the district, particularly when the administration is trying to be “fiscally smart because it means more dollars for our kids. I want to support that any way we can.”

Willden also discussed the district’s partnership with Virgin Galactic, the focus of which is a plan to implement an aerospace career pathways program. Willden heads up the New Mexico Aviation Aerospace Educational Alliance.

“This is awesome,” Skandera remarked after hearing from Willden about the aerospace-related initiatives. She suggested the district might be able to receive career technical education funding through the state to help the effort.

“This is something I want to see (happen),” she told Willden.

Skandera said many officials at the state level have discussed the importance of schools partnering with businesses and the Raton school district’s work with Virgin Galactic is a good example.

“The schools are the suppliers of employees,” she said, adding that the aerospace career pathways program is one example of how schools can respond to the needs of businesses and get students prepared to enter the workforce.

“It helps the students to see what is possible (for their future) and how to be prepared for a career,” Skandera said.

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