“The Griegos way: Do the right thing at the right time.”

— Tom Graham, former principal

  • Albuquerque Public Schools
  • Grades PK-5
  • Public
  • Urban
  • DTM awarded in 2010

School Overview

Awarded the Dispelling the Myth Award in 2010, Griegos continues to outperform the state under a new principal.

New Mexico has few rivals for the poor academic performance of its children. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is the most respected measure of academic achievement, New Mexico consistently performs near the bottom of the nation.

In 2010, Griegos Elementary School was a bright spot in the state. Here’s one illustrative data point: 91 percent of Griegos’ fifth-grade students met or exceeded state reading standards, compared with only 59 percent of fifth-graders in the rest of the state.

Griegos is a relatively small neighborhood school in a stable, working-class area of Albuquerque where quite a few teachers remember teaching the parents and even grandparents of their current students. Three-quarters of the children are Hispanic and about 65 percent come from low-income families.

Principal Tom Graham attributed Griegos’ success to high expectations for all students and a “traditional” approach to instruction — a word that covers a lot of ground from the direct instruction teachers provide to the fact that students are expected to memorize their multiplication tables.

“We have the same expectations for all students, rich or poor,” Graham said. Every student is expected to meet standards, and teachers spend time working together to build lessons and identify any student who is having trouble, tracking their progress using individual portfolios kept by the students themselves.

Having high expectations doesn’t mean that the staff doesn’t appreciate that some children may have some real difficulties, ranging from difficult home lives to learning disabilities. But, in Graham’s words, “We keep you safe, make you warm or cool, and give you a meal; then you have to learn. I’m sorry if your mom’s in jail, but this is your escape route. You’re as good as anybody when you’re here.”

When Graham arrived in 2002, after a career as a Marine fighter pilot, he found a comfortable school that had never been particularly high achieving. He established the “Griegos Way,” which was, “Do the right thing at the right time” and honed the idea that if kids aren’t learning something, teachers need to change what they’re doing.

For example, after a year of faithfully teaching a new district-approved math curriculum that focused primarily on conceptual understanding, teachers saw that their students were unsuccessful on the state assessments. “We saw that the children were really hurt by not knowing the basics,” said one teacher. Since then, the teachers have supplemented the program with multiplication tables and basic algorithms. The result: in 2010, 88 percent of Griegos’s Hispanic fifth-grade students met state math standards, with 42 percent exceeding them. This is a startling contrast to the state, where 45 percent of the state’s fifth-grade students met state math standards.

That kind of empirical practicality pervades Griegos, where teachers identify the standards students need to meet and then provide the instruction needed.

In 2012, Graham retired and was succeeded by Deanne Smith.

Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011) features Tom Graham, former principal of Griegos.

Huffington Post article by Karin Chenoweth.

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