Fifth-grader Cesar Rodriguez stands in a sea of colorful backpacks outside Anthony Elementary School.
He used to earn D's, where nearly all of the students are low-income and Spanish-speaking.
But that was the past. Now, he earns A's and B's and likes school, he says, wearing his navy Anthony Elementary T-shirt.
Does he want to go to college?
"Yes," he says emphatically, smiling. "NMSU Aggies."
Cesar wants to be a radiologist. And with the help of Anthony Elementary, he just may be the first in his family to go to college.
Recipe for success
Officials across the state are holding up Anthony as a model for helping low-income, Spanish-speaking students achieve, a change that has come under the three-year tenure of Principal Linda Perez.
The number of students testing proficient in math and reading has increased 20 percent over the past three years, and the school is the only one in the district to earn an "A" grade.
More than 99 percent of the 420 students receive free or reduced lunches. All are Hispanic. Sixty percent are English language learners, and the other 40 percent speak Spanish at home, Perez said, statistics that often condemn such students at many schools.
But not Anthony.
All it took, administrators said, was an emphasis on college readiness, assessment and the belief that failure isn't an option.
"You can come up with 45,000 excuses for why students don't do well in school," said Gadsden Independent
School District Superintendent Efren Yturralde. "But when you have a school with no excuses, you see a child who can learn and a child who can be successful, and that's what Anthony is."
Straddling the Texas-New Mexico border, Anthony sits along the I-10 between the dairy farms of Dona Ana County and the El Paso sprawl.
The town is home to some 9,360 people with a median household income of $22,216.
Most parents didn't graduate high school and many are recent immigrants, Perez said.
The elementary school is tucked between three cemeteries and a slew of apartment complexes with playgrounds of primary colors. It's a new building with white halls and shiny white floors.
Pendants from Stanford University, Virginia Tech, New Mexico State University, University of North Carolina line the halls, which have names like "NMSU Aggies" or "UTEP Miners."
Plaques hang outside every classroom door, listing where each teacher went to college.
Some kids grow up knowing they'll go to college, Perez said.
"Our kids don't grow up with that; they don't see it in their parents," she said. "I have parents that when they come sign up for school and you give them their registration packet, they don't know how to read or write ... So how do these kids, they have no idea that there's something out there for them. And it's our job to do that."
There was little emphasis on college readiness before Perez joined Anthony, said sixth-grade math teacher Leticia Gonzales.
"Now the students know it's not an option; they're going to college," said Gonzales, who has been at Anthony for 20 years.
In one sixth-grade class, two boys create college brochures with pencil and lined paper, looking up descriptions and student quotes from schools they want to go to: NMSU and Notre Dame University.
"Even the kinder(garteners) can do it," Perez said, "even if they're just pointing to a banner and saying, "I want to go to that college.'"
Perez runs a tight ship.
Anthony students rarely had homework before her tenure, now it's two hours a night, she said.
She knows most of the parents and kids, and she and her staff know the New Mexico education standards inside and out, administrators said.
Perez can walk into a classroom and immediately know if a teacher's lesson meets the benchmarks, Yturralde said.
At a principals meeting at the beginning of the school year, he asked the principals to name a standard and no one could, Perez said.
"You have to know," she said.
"Behemoth," "monster" notebooks of data track progress, said teacher Lisa Quintis, who coaches teachers who might need extra help with the standards themselves.
That assessment, that accountability is what other schools lack, administrators said.
"Students don't fail, we fail them," Perez said. "If you have a large portion of your kids that are failing, you can't blame it on the kids. There has to be something wrong with you as the adult."
'I just have to hope'
After graduating from Anthony Elementary, the students will enter middle school with its peer pressures and puberty, roadblocks and snags.
Gadsden Middle School received a "B" rating; Gadsden High School a "D."
At Gadsden Middle, 42.3 percent of students are proficient or advanced in reading and 39.3 percent in math. At Gadsden High, 28.8 percent are proficient or advanced in reading and 28.2 percent in math.
Only 63 percent of New Mexico students graduate high school, though Yturralde said GISD's rate is higher, 81.2 percent for all three high schools combined. State data show Hispanic students are less likely to graduate than their peers, and low-income and limited English proficiency students even less so.
Gadsden Middle doesn't track how students from individual schools do but is working with Perez to help replicate Anthony's positivity and college emphasis, interim Principal Veronica Quinonez said.
Just instilling that college drive in elementary school might be enough to get Anthony students to college, regardless of the challenges they'll face in middle and high school, Perez said.
"I just have to hope that they won't" get lost in the system, she said. "I guess part of it is I don't want to think that they'll get lost, that they're going to make it through."
Cesar's mother, Araceli Rodriguez, said she's seen big improvements in her kids under Perez. They love school now, and she hopes they'll go to college.
"I think my kids are going to be the first," she said. "My kids are really into it. I'm the one that's nervous they're not going to."
Lindsey Anderson can be reached at 575-541-5462. Follow her on Twitter @l_m_anderson.
Anthony Elementary at a glance
-- "A" grade from state Public Education Department
-- 62.4 percent of students proficient in reading
-- 70 percent of students proficient in math
-- No. 1 of 51 schools with similar proportion of English language learners
-- No. 2 of 139 schools with similar proportion of economically disadvantaged students
Source: New Mexico Public Education Department
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