LaJuana Coleman

“It’s been a good run,” Rio Rancho Public Schools Executive Director of Secondary Curriculum LaJuana Coleman said, preparing for retirement after 15 years with the district.

Literally, she’s off to another good run — a downhill run, if you will, as she and her husband, Craig, look forward to skiing,  “COVID-willing,” she says, the rest of the winter.

She and her husband of 20 years — who was living in California when they connected at a 20-year Amarillo High School reunion —“are going to take a three-month break, a sabbatical,” she said. “We’re going to take a few months off and go skiing everywhere we can…I’m married to a man who’s fanatical about skiing.”

And although she has formally retired from RRPS, at 59 years of age, she says, “I’m not done working. In some ways, I would like to do something different — educators have a lot of skill sets.”

Ever since she was a young girl growing up in the Texas Panhandle, she knew working in education was in her future.

“In grade school,” she remembered, “I made my brother and the neighborhood kids line up and I lectured at them.”

During her high school days, “I had amazing teachers. I could list teachers from fourth grade on that impacted me in some way,” she said. “The legacy of that is long-lasting. (But) I didn’t know teaching would be my path till college.”

Attending North Texas State University, she had memorable influential history professors, and went on to become an American History teacher at Plano High School in Texas, where she also had a role in the Advanced Placement course for social studies.

“I would have stayed there, but I found love,” she said.

After 17 years of working in Texas and after marrying her California guy, the two decided New Mexico “was a good place in the middle” between the Golden State and the Longhorn State.

“I came (to New Mexico) and went to work for Advanced Placement/New Mexico, out of Highlands University,” she said, “a program that did professional development for teachers for AP. I was there three years (2002-05); we worked for the state, and the money appropriated for AP went through Highlands and we spent it.”

Around 2005, she recalled, Carl Leppelman, then the district’s associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, created elementary and secondary positions for duties previously assigned to one K-12 job.

“I remember it was a huge (hiring) committee — like 20 people, all friendly faces,” Coleman recalled. “There was a lot of smiling going on. Coming in from the outside was scary.”

Had role in CHS beginnings

She was “cornered” soon after her hiring by then-Facilities Director Al Sena, who asked, “Are you interested in creating a high school?”

She was, so she had a role in the creation of Cleveland High School, which opened in the summer of 2009.

“I was the chair of the education-specifications team, bringing together educators and architects,” she said. “It was amazing; it was fun to work with the architects, and they brought in a team that built high schools. We would spend hours talking.”

Coleman was asked what she’s noticed as far as changes in education.

“Interestingly, I don’t think I can say it’s changed all that much,” she said. “The real shift in teaching math is more toward the conceptual approach. What children are learning now is how to thrive through numbers, learning the why and the concepts behind; it’s called ‘numbers sense.’

“In sixth grade, more students are qualified — higher than it ever was,” Coleman said. “We had to add an advanced math class.

“… What’s hard for the parents is the new math — that has been the shift,” she said. “There are a lot of projects that we’ve worked on over the years that have changed Rio Rancho, like professional learning communities to Common Core to building AP; the latest has been grading reform.”

At the school board’s last meeting of 2020, Leppelman, now chief academics officer, told the board about Coleman’s pending departure.

“I just wanted to take a minute to thank her for doing so much to raise expectations for our students in this district,” he said. “When she came in, she said all kids have AP potential.”

Leppelman then listed “five big things” the two had worked on together, including establishing collaboration with the teachers and “traveling across the nation, looking for the best programs and making sure that (CHS) really supported our programs.

“You’ve definitely been a change agent, and the status quo isn’t OK,” he said.

Added RRPS Superintendent Sue Cleveland, “One of the things you hope is that you leave something better than what you found it and certainly that is the case. … (and) one of the things I appreciate so much was the comprehensive approach to professional development. You put AP on the map for Rio Rancho.”

Coleman said she knew it was time to retire from RRPS.

“There was a lot of the universe pointing in that direction,” she said.

There’s another challenge out there, but she’s not sure where she’ll find it; she’ll merely “stay the course.

“I think one of the things I’ve heard from my colleagues that made me feel good is I would never shy from challenges, and move things forward,” she said. “It’s so important to me: The relationships I have built over the years will always remain important in my life; I have a lot of friends (in RRPS) that I am very thankful for.”

Gary Herron | Observer staff writer