Third grader Gabriella Quiñones has plenty of ambitions and fears. The Kearny Elementary School student wants to be a singer and is worried about getting a bad grade in science. Most of all though, she seems really excited to be back at school.
When the pandemic intensified and classes went online in 2020, Gabriella found it so stressful she said she came down with a case of facial paralysis. But standing outside of the front entrance of Kearny on Wednesday morning on the first day of the school, she had an unmistakeable air of confidence.
“I know where everything is,” she said.
Meanwhile, her parents, Norianna and Rick Quiñones, are relieved the school is hosting daily tutoring sessions and “movement classes” this year at 7:15 a.m. before the bell rings. Both parents go to work early and plan on enrolling Gabriella in tutoring so they can get to work on time. The movement classes will begin in September.
The new before-school programs are part of a web of resources officials hope to cement into the school culture using funds from a Community Schools grant awarded by the New Mexico Public Education Department.
After receiving a $50,000 planning grant last school year, Kearny Elementary is one of seven schools in the district set to receive three annual allotments of roughly $150,000 to connect students with resources and provide more programs outside school hours.
This school year marks the first round of annual funds for Kearny.
When the three years are up, schools can apply for a one-year renewal, though the funding amount will vary.
In all, 68 schools across New Mexico received funding this school year, according to the department.
The initiative was passed by legislators in 2019 using a combination of federal and state funds.
State education officials hope the community school strategy, nationally shown to improve academic and health outcomes for students, will improve outcomes like attendance and graduation rates.
In turn, they believe it will help satisfy the demands of the ruling from the 2018 landmark Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, which cited poor student outcomes as proof the state was failing to provide the majority of New Mexico’s students a fair education.
As needs like child care and food assistance remain high among local families in Santa Fe, the additional funding comes as a huge relief to Kearny’s sole counselor, Leah O’Shell.
Since coming to the south-side school more than five years ago, longtime Santa Fe Public Schools employee O’Shell has rushed from student appointment to appointment while networking with local organizations to get additional support for her students.
While the American School Counselor Association recommends the counselor-to-student ratio remain at 1 to 250, O’Shell is serving roughly 330 students.
As neighborhood demographics change, that number is smaller than it’s been in the past, she said.
But many are still in need — and their chances of showing up to school and performing well are lower without support, O’Shell said.
About 100 students each year regularly need food and clothing assistance, which O’Shell coordinates through local organizations including The Food Depot and Christus St. Vincent Regional Hospital.
Some immigrant students are dealing with grief caused by the deportation of family members, so she connects them with local grieving center Gerard’s House.
Other students are coming from backgrounds marked by addiction or housing instability, or have parents who are working three jobs to stay afloat. O’Shell recently helped a single mother in recovery find new furniture by surfing Craigslist.
These things take time, she said.
“A lot of that falls on my plate, it becomes a huge job,” O’Shell said. “For me, it’s like literally putting out fires.”
The Community Schools grant includes funding to hire a community school coordinator, who will help carry some of that burden by connecting families with resources.
Kearny recently hired former secretary Flor Barraza for the role, who O’Shell said already knows most of the school’s families. It’s a position O’Shell hopes becomes permanent, though she acknowledged Wednesday nothing is certain.
While O’Shell sees the Community Schools funding as a necessity for Kearny, permanent funding isn’t guaranteed and the reporting requirements are high. She’s hoping the state allocates more regular mental health funding to all public schools.
Starting in the 2023-24 school year, the Public Education Department hopes to make community schools funding permanent for schools that are certified as meeting the program’s grant requirements.
Kearny Principal Jonathan Davis, a district alumnus who took over in March after Robin Noble was promoted to director of the district’s human resources department, is hoping the Community Schools grant funding will allow the school to become a hub for arts and culture.
He wants before- and after-school programs funded by the Community Schools grant to focus on the cultural and linguistic identities of his students. For before-school programs, he wants to bring in activities like drumming, dance and yoga.
He also hopes the school can connect with organizations that will be able to continue partnering with Kearny when the grant runs out.
“Ultimately, this kind of funding doesn’t come around all that often,” Davis said.
Davis cemented his vision Wednesday morning by hiring a jazz trio, headed by local parent and musician Robert Beasley, to play live as the grade schoolers waited to enter the school.
When the bell rang at 8:15 a.m., the kids entered ceremoniously: one by one beneath a purple and white balloon archway as the sound of a stand-up bass and a trumpet crooned over the parking lot.
“I’d like to see that our school becomes rebranded in a way,” Davis said. “That we could be a real hub for students and families who are looking for that particular focus.”