Three Santa Fe schools are poised to begin the first phase of a statewide program that could lead to more resources that would help them close the achievement gap for disadvantaged students.
This spring, the New Mexico Public Education Department awarded a $50,000 planning grant to Kearny Elementary, Milagro Middle and Nina Otero Community schools as part of the state’s community school grant program.
The funding is part of a plan to bring equity to education following the landmark Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit in which a judge ruled the state had failed to sufficiently fund public schools.
As part of the planning phase, Kearny, Milagro and Nina Otero will conduct community surveys.
“That includes students, parents, staff members, community providers, local residents, business store owners in the area — really engaging all of those stakeholders to find out what they see the needs of the community and the school [are],” said Crystal Ybarra, deputy equity, diversity and engagement officer at Santa Fe Public Schools.
The schools have ambitious plans to improve academic achievement; provide after-hours community and learning opportunities; and to support physical, mental and emotional needs of students.
Santa Fe High and César Chávez Elementary schools are beyond the planning phase, and each received $150,000 implementation-phase grants this year.
According to the National Education Association, the community schools model establishes a connection between academic success and access to resources that some communities may be deprived of because of geographical location or poverty.
Community schools are expected to provide students with physical and social resources, offer expanded learning time and opportunities, facilitate community and family engagement, and foster collaborative leadership.
Those factors largely rely on partnerships with outside agencies.
To be eligible for the state grant, a school must have at least one subgroup of students that is consistently underperforming, or 40 percent of its students must qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Ybarra, who oversees community school implementation, said it wasn’t until César Chávez received a planning grant during the 2019-20 school year that she realized just how immense the school’s needs were, with its high population of English language learners and homelessness rate.
From there, the district received implementation grants to bring wraparound resources to the school through partnerships with agencies and companies in town. The resources included more teacher training on trauma-informed care, art projects and a “resource room” with a washer and dryer.
When the schools max out their grant, the district will need to seek other forms of economic support to sustain progress.
“It might be public or private grants,” Ybarra said. “All of our schools operate, at some capacity, in a community schools framework just naturally.”
The district previously applied for funding for Kearny and Milagro, because they feed into Santa Fe High, but the applications weren’t approved until this year.
“We wanted to see if we had the community schools framework in place from [kindergarten] all the way up through 12th [grade], what kind of type of long-term process we would be making,” she said.
Indicators like attendance, graduation and discipline rates will be tracked to see how effective the model is on student success.
Kearny Principal Robin Noble is eager for the planning phase to start at the school, which has a high amount of students learning English and living in poverty. Those two factors can make succeeding in education difficult for students, she acknowledged.
“One of the things that I think that Kearny is yearning for is a direction and a focus,” she said. “Kearny is definitely a school that needs to close the achievement gap.”
Noble said the planning grant, and later the implementation grants, would help Kearny provide more targeted instruction for students who need it.
“We’re going to be giving kids grade-level standards,” she said. “And when we come across the gaps, we want to have a really strong system of interventions and remediations so that they get targeted instruction on what their gaps are and not just trying to repeat that year.”
The district joins others across the state, as well as legislators, who see the four-pronged community schools model as a way to help level the playing field for at-risk students.
Lawmakers passed the Community Schools Act in 2013 to allow any public school to become a community school, but it wasn’t until 2019 that state and federal funds totaling $14 million were allocated for the program by the state Public Education Department. The state distributed more than $6 million in community schools grants for the 2021-22 school year.
The latest round of grants could bring the number of community schools in the state to 54 within three years, the state said.
In January, the Learning Policy Institute reported that community schools in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe that had been operating for five or more years yielded better-than-average achievement scores.
“The long-term hope is that we grow all of the schools to better support this model,” Ybarra said.