Joseph M. Vigil


Most school organizations could use a no-nonsense schemer like Joe Vigil.

Vigil (pronounced "Vee-hill") can lay claim to one of the more unusual job titles in central administration. He has served for the last 18 months as the Albuquerque Public Schools' first associate superintendent for school reform, a creative appellation for an innovative and risk-taking educator. It's the latest in a string of nontraditional administrative roles for the 46-year-old New Mexican.

In a previous assignment, he was known widely as the school district's "dropout czar" because of the substantial authority invested in him by the city's board of education to stem the premature departure of students. This followed on the heels of a unique exercise in which he was asked to second-guess every key decision made by the superintendent in an urban district in New Jersey.

Before that, Vigil spent a year as superintendent of a 1,000-student Native American school district in northern Wisconsin.

"I'm invigorated by challenges," he says matter-of-factly.

Vigil has had his share of those in Albuquerque, where he's been entrusted by Superintendent Brad Allison with creating systemwide structures that will support improved student learning and decrease the number of dropouts in the 85,300-student district.

By breaking through the status quo, he's naturally ruffled plenty of feathers. Most recently, Vigil unnerved some building principals and the teachers’ union by his proposal to reduce staffing, on a pro-rata basis, from any secondary school that loses students over the course of a school year. A dramatic departure from standard practice, the measure is intended to free up resources for the central office to expand alternative services for the nearly 2,200 students who drop from the official attendance rolls.

Vigil’s proposal, adopted in June by the school board, will take effect a year from now. Initially, high schools will be given the chance to devise new in-school programs and recovery strategies for suspended students and dropouts before the district will reassign staffing.

"I've never engaged in something that generated as much resistance," Vigil admits. "All we were saying is, 'Let's provide meaningful services to students who are leaving. Let's better use the existing resources.' … People are used to doing things in usual ways."

This latest proposal is representative of the way Vigil forces his colleagues to address common situations in uncommon terms. He doesn’t see himself as capricious, but he wants to push people further in their thinking and acting.

"If someone disagrees with me, it probably means I haven’t made myself clear enough," says Vigil. "I like to put up an idea and let people shoot at it, critique it. That makes it stronger. I feel disappointed when people don’t challenge it."

Albuquerque's board president, Richard Toledo, says Vigil is usually "very comfortable, confident and well-researched" when introducing an initiative before the governing body. "He doesn't go out and just charge up a hill. He'll go out and assess a situation."

A self-described fiscal conservative, Vigil was the catalyst for the creation of the school district’s development office in 1996. That office, in conjunction with the APS Foundation, has raised almost $4 million since then, many from corporate and foundation sources. He thinks this fund-raising total could be pushed higher by focusing on clear targets.

Vigil signalled his commitment to urban education when he entered the specialized doctoral program for superintendents at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education two years ago. He expects to complete his dissertation on high school principals in May 2002.

As part of the required Harvard internship, Vigil assisted the state-appointed superintendent in the Newark, N.J., Public Schools, where his most memorable responsibility was to write memos second-guessing every significant decision of his boss.

Such experiences have furthered his appreciation of the importance of a unified governing board. He’s even devised a way to encourage that goal. During his year as a superintendent in Wisconsin, Vigil put a coin jar at the center of the board table and asked members to deposit a quarter every time they issued a gripe at a meeting without offering a possible solution.

"Some would come to our meetings with a roll of quarters," he says. "But by the 5th or 6th meeting, no money was collected at all."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: