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Heart and soul school of Costilla, on the brink of closure
Photo courtesy: Rio Costilla Southwest Learning Academy

By Ernest Gurulé

Every morning, Vivian Vallejos, is out of bed at five to begin her day. A half hour later, she wakes her two young daughters and by 6:45 a.m., the kids are dressed and ready for the hour-long ride from Costilla, one of several ‘satellite communities’ surrounding Taos, New Mex., to their new school. Though there’s a public school not far away, Alta Vista Elementary in Questa New Mexico, the wife and mother chooses the drive. Taos Academy, she believes, is a better school and better for her children.

This daily routine began when the new school year started and the school her children and those that nearby families attended, Rio Costilla Southwest Learning Academy, was locked down. The district made the decision based on health and safety standards. A Taos newspaper account said Michael Lovato, Superintendent of Questa Independent School District, said an Albuquerque hygienist hired to look Rio Costilla over, determined that “sewage gas, mold spores, avian excrement and dead animals,” made it unfit for habitation.

Vallejos has no argument with the findings but says the problems highlighted by the hygienist are not in the part of the school where students study. The part of Rio Costilla, which includes the old gymnasium, is separate from the part students use. The hygienist who confirmed the unhealthy conditions in the old section of the property also said that the new section of Rio Costilla showed no signs of problems that might endanger students, staff or faculty.

Rio Costilla had been under the microscope well before its recent lock down. Previous superintendents and school boards claimed that, despite its high performance, it was expensive to operate and a strain on a school district already strapped for funds. Vallejos said that closing it temporarily is simply a precursor to closing it permanently.

Vallejos said her community’s school is also its heart and soul and that the problems identified by the hygienist are not so serious as to make it off-limits for normal school functions. “It’s a new building,” she said. The part that’s compromised with mold, mildew, dead mice and birds, isn’t even used. “My opinion is that ever since certain board members got on the school board, maintenance (of the building) has fallen apart.”

A number of those who support Vallejos and other parents of Rio Costilla students says that the whole effort is subterfuge. Other schools at two of the district’s other schools, they say, have worse conditions than Rio Costilla’s but health assessments weren’t done there.

Before closing, Rio Costilla’s enrollment was approximately 30 students. Parents had a choice of busing their kids to Alta Vista Elementary, some twenty miles away, or even sending them to Fort Garland, in Colorado. Vallejos said, beside her two children, there are four other students who make the hour-long commute to Taos.

A meeting scheduled for Tuesday evening, said Vallejos, will determine if the Rio Costilla school will remain shuttered on a temporary basis or if the Superintendent and School Board will make the move permanent. Vallejos and a number of parents whose children also attended Rio Costilla are not optimistic. But, whatever the decision, they say, they will not give up on keeping the school open until it no longer makes sense. “We’re still united,” said Nina Roswell, whose son was a fifth grader at the school. “We’re still Rio Costilla and we’ll keep fighting this.”

Calls and emails to the Superintendent’s office seeking a statement have not been returned.





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