There were scorpions, pigeons and snakes in Sue Cleveland's offi ce when she became head of the newly created Rio Rancho district in 1994. There was also an old green Army desk, a broken fi ling cabinet and a loaner computer. "What have I done?" Cleveland recalls thinking once or twice. But most days what she 'had done' in taking the job was not nearly as important as what she needed to do. Since starting with 5,900 kids and several dilapidated buildings, Rio Rancho has grown to 13,000 students and added six new schools, with more to come. During Cleveland's tenure in the fi rst new district in the state in decades, she's been part of other fi rsts, including Rio Rancho becoming the state's fi rst charter district and a new high school graduating its first class.
First Up, Achievement
The scorpions and snakes were the downside; the upside was creating the `Rio Rancho way.' Cleveland told the Albuquerque and Jemez Valley teachers who opted to stay in the buildings Rio Rancho acquired from these districts that while she hoped they would stay, changes were coming. "If you don't want to do things differently and better, then this probably isn't the place you're going to want to be,' " said Cleveland, who left a South Carolina superintendency to return to her roots. New Mexico is not only her birthplace but also where her grandmother taught back when the territory gained state status. Her vision of change has helped Rio Rancho mature into one of New Mexico's top fi ve, 5,000-plus student districts in both English and math achievement last school year.
On Cleveland's mind as she rises each morning: "How can we do better for every single child?" This mantra of continuous improvement may sound familiar. It's the heart of the Malcolm Baldridge philosophy, and Rio Rancho is a Baldridge district. "We're pretty good," says Don Chalmers, a local automobile dealership owner and education activist. "But that's never been good enough for Sue." That drive for progress was a factor in her selection as a national fi nalist in the American Association of School Administrators' 2005 Superintendent of the Year competition.
-Stan Rounds, retired superintendent and state-level administrator
Opening new schools-to replace aging facilities and accommodate about 1,000 new students annually-has become a key part of Cleveland's job. Unique among these is Rio Rancho's fi rst high school, built entirely by Intel as part of a county tax incentive plan. Cleveland says her "best day" as an educator was when she watched the high school's fi rst graduating class receive their honors.
Stan Rounds, a retired New Mexico superintendent and state-level administrator, calls Cleveland "the mother" of Rio Rancho schools. The district's high employee retention rate is one indication of that role. Ema Archibeque-Dreher, Cleveland's assistant, says "she brings a human element to the workplace." The approach has helped the district family weather three deaths and 12 serious illnesses in the past year. One loss was the district's executive director of special services to cancer. "I look at all that Maggie [Cordova] has accomplished ... and I think, 'How can we not do everything we can to continue the work she had done?" Cleveland says. On the homefront, she and her husband have two pre-teen sons and an ailing parent to look after. "You certainly do see school differently through your children's eyes," Cleveland says of her sons being district students. "Just when you are thinking things are going well, your children tell you they're not."
Rebecca Sausner is a contributing editor.