For more than a decade, the educational philosophy in the Farmington Municipal School District, which serves about 11,000 students in one of New Mexico’s most diverse communities, has been known as the “Farmington Way.” Characterized by an instructional model steeped in classroom-centered practices and efforts to ensure that school leaders take the lead on teaching and learning in their buildings, the Farmington Way has served to anchor common expectations and language for educators throughout the district.

“The district has a commitment to holding course around what we believe,” says Nate Pierantoni, Farmington’s director of school improvement. To ensure that commitment remains a reality, district leaders focused on assessing the extent to which the Farmington Way translates into effective classroom practices during a 2018 Cognia Systems Accreditation Engagement Review. Feedback from site visits, surveys, and other data conducted by Cognia led to specific changes in the district. We’re connecting the dots between student achievement and the adult behaviors that drive student achievement.

We’re connecting the dots between student achievement and the adult behaviors that drive student achievement.

But that was just the beginning. Farmington leaders also leveraged components of the accreditation review process for their own continuous improvement efforts, helping align teaching and learning in classrooms throughout the district. The ongoing work is built around systems that take key components of accreditation and assessment and make them ongoing processes in every school. These processes have contributed to improvements in student achievement and national recognition for closing equity gaps in the northwestern New Mexico school district. “We’re connecting the dots between student achievement and the adult behaviors that drive student achievement,” says Superintendent Dr. Eugene Schmidt.

A Playbook for Improvement

Farmington’s work with Cognia reinforced the district’s commitment to its own growth in instructional and leadership capacity, says Deputy Superintendent Phil Valdez. “The process puts you on the continuous improvement pathway,” he says. Many of the continuous improvement practices embedded in Cognia’s engagement review process and assessment services are visible today in the district’s ongoing practices and routines—both at the central office and in individual schools and classrooms. “It’s not for compliance, but for monitoring and identifying the supports schools need and how that transitions to the work we do at the district level.”

It’s not for compliance, but for monitoring and identifying the supports schools need and how that transitions to the work we do at the district level

“We started using the word ‘playbook’ with building administrators to show at the building level the systems we have put into place from instructional and leadership standpoints,” Valdez says.

The district found several systems particularly effective.

Focused team visits. Twice a year, Farmington district leaders conduct “focused team visits” at each of the district’s 19 schools. Modeled on Cognia’s onsite review visits, a team of between 15 and 20 central office personnel visits each school to conduct classroom observations based on the district’s instructional model snapshot, which identifies key components of the instructional practices that make up the Farmington Way. In-person interviews with students and staff during the team visits to validate surveys sent to members of each school’s community on an ongoing basis. Aggregate survey results are discussed during follow-up conversations with each school’s leadership team.

Assessment and data. To ensure that students are mastering what they learn, Farmington now uses short-cycle assessments, developed and delivered by Cognia, in math, reading, and science to track student progress. Teachers supplement assessment data with their own more frequent checks for understanding. Doing so, says Valdez, “has allowed us to drill down, understand student performance, and take action.” Weekly data team meetings in schools are driven around common formative assessments, and teachers take a full day to review data each quarter. “Data is shared between teachers and buildings, and out to the community as well,” says Pierantoni. “There’s an expectation as a parent that every teacher in grades K-8 can tell any family member exactly which standards their kids are or are not mastering.”

School improvement cycles. Within schools, the district has implemented 90-day planning cycles. A school-based leadership team in each building develops annual goals for student achievement and identifies the root causes inhibiting progress. The team meets regularly throughout the year to plan critical actions and desired outcomes, scheduling opportunities to reflect and adjust plans on 30-60-and 90-day cycles.

Leadership development. Cognia’s practices helped inform the creation of more refined mechanisms to support the district’s vision of leadership development, including regularly scheduled check-ins and reviews against the district’s model of leadership competencies. District leaders also have connected these competencies to principal professional development plans and evaluations, and implemented professional learning communities (PLCs) for its principals at different grade levels. The PLCs meet monthly and conduct classroom observations together to refine common understanding of instructional expectations.

Reinforcing common language. Farmington leaders used feedback from Cognia’s systems accreditation review as the impetus to create a single districtwide handbook, replacing the 19 different handbooks formerly created by each school. Doing so helped ensure that attendance and homework expectations were consistent across the district, and reinforced standardized language around disciplinary referrals.

Clarity and a Sense of Purpose

Together, these systems reinforce the district’s longstanding vision of instruction and school leadership and help the district take a longer-term view of instructional improvement, to the benefit of students.

“The continuous improvement model is not new in education, and it’s not new to people in our district,” says Pierantoni. “What is fresh in Farmington is the consistency with which we’ve strengthened our systems instead of looking for a silver bullet each year.”

Notable school accomplishments:

  • In 2016, the district’s Northeast Elementary School was named a National Title I Distinguished School for its efforts to close the achievement gap.
  • In fall 2019, Ladera Del Norte Elementary School was named a National Blue Ribbon School, the only school in the state—and only one of 41 nationwide—recognized for its work closing achievement gaps.
  • Growth in district proficiency levels and graduation rates:

Over the past four years, the percentage of students proficient in English Language Arts increased from 26 to 43 percent, while the percentage of those proficient in math rose from 17 to 23 percent.

  • In March 2019 leaders learned that high school graduation rates exceeded statewide averages.
  • Graduation rate  increased from  66 percent in 2011 to just under 75 percent in 2018, the last year for which data was available.
  • The district also is closing achievement gaps more quickly than comparable districts in the state.

Looking ahead, Farmington is updating its strategic plan, incorporating the continuous improvement 90-day planning cycle to create “a more robust” process, says Pierantoni.

“Farmington has been here for 107 years, but through the commitments over the last decade and the lens of Cognia, we have increased organizational clarity and our sense of purpose.  As a result we are seeing demonstrative growth in student achievement.”


Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a Washington, D.C.-based  writer and editor. He has covered education and technology for a wide range of trade and industry publications.